Ireland: Crubeens (Crunchy Pigs' Trotters): March 14, 2007
Crubeens would be one of the relatively few dishes whose name in Ireland sounds about the same in English and as Gaeilge -- because "crubeens" comes directly from the Irish cruibíni, "trotters" or "pig's feet". All through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, crubeens were widely sold in Ireland as street food, snack food, and the quintessential bar food. Publicans would often serve big bowls of them right at the bar; they knew that the yummy, gummy, bacon-y, salty finger food would make their patrons literally thirsty for just one more pint. Indeed, the pint of stout -- Guinness in much of the country, or Beamish down south by its home in Cork -- was always the preferred accompaniment for crubeens, along with soda bread. People sometimes purposely started shops or stalls selling crubeens next to some handy pub that didn't sell them itself.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, crubeens started to get harder to find in Ireland as people grew more interested in other more exotic or less rustic kinds of snack food. But the dish is now experiencing a renaissance in popularity, turning up in high-profile competitions among European celebrity TV chefs, and on the menus of high-priced restaurants. Some of the treatments the pigs' feet receive in these places are completely unrelated to the way they would traditionally have appeared when served at a pub's bar or at an Irish country town's crubeen stall. But there are still restaurants, pubs and shops or stalls, especially in the south of the country, where fresh, hot, crunchy crubeens in the traditional style can be found. This particular food tradition -- for good reason -- seems not to be going away. Try them yourself and see why!
If there's a single reason why the popularity of crubeens might have slipped in past years, it's probably that they require long, slow cooking -- always a problem these days when the Irish lifestyle is as hectic as that of any other modern industrialized country. They can also be messy to eat: while you do see people trying to eat them with a knife and fork, it's going to be an exercise in frustration because of the numerous bones and the gelatinous quality of the surprisingly rich meat. But a cook who doesn't want the dinner guests to have to deal with this problem can simply cook the crubeens, then bone them afterwards and press the meat together so that it sets in its own juices. Boned or not, crubeens are worth the trouble: it's impossible to overstate how good they are when they're just out of the oven, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Trotter meat is some of the best pork in the whole pig. If you're looking for something traditionally Irish to have with that pint of stout on Saint Patrick's day, or any other time, this is one of your best bets.
Here are two takes on the basic crubeen recipe. One is for those who want to eat it with a knife and fork and stay relatively tidy. The second is for those who don't mind getting a little sticky while they eat something delicious.
The basic recipe...
(to serve four)
- 8 fresh pigs' feet (not pickled!), ideally the front ones
- 2 large onions
- 2 large carrots
- 2 bay leaves
- Bunch of parsley
- 12 peppercorns
- 1 egg, beaten
- 125g / 4 ounces dried breadcrumbs
- Bacon fat or oil for roasting
- Parsley to garnish
Wash the pigs' feet well. Sometimes they have some bristles left on them: you can either scrape these off, or leave them where they are -- cooking will soften them (or even dissolve them), and you can scrape them off afterwards.
If you simply boil them naked, they may fall apart: so it makes for a much more attractive final result (and crubeens that are a lot easier to handle) if you wrap them in cheesecloth first. As in the picture, for each pig's trotter, cut a piece of cheesecloth that's a roughly couple of feet long and eighteen inches wide. Place the trotter on the piece of cheesecloth and roll it up; then twist the ends until they're cordlike, bring them together at the middle of the trotter, and tie them together.
When the trotters are wrapped, put them into a large pot with the onions, carrots, bay leaves, parsley and peppercorns: cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for 2-3 hours, until the meat is tender.
Remove the trotters carefully from the cooking liquid, and allow them to drain in a colander, still wrapped, until they're easy to handle. Then unwrap them carefully. (They may try to fall apart on you if they're tender enough. This is a good sign, but can make things exciting, so be careful.) If necessary, pat the trotters dry with paper towels / kitchen paper.
Have the beaten egg and breadcrumbs ready in separate dishes. (We used cornflake crumbs for our example: they worked very well.) Dip each crubeen in the beaten egg, then roll in breadcrumbs. Repeat is you desire an extra thick crust.
Preheat the oven to 220C / 450F. Heat the bacon fat or oil in a shallow roasting dish. Place the trotters in the dish and spoon the fat or oil over them. Roast in the oven for about 30 minutes until crisp and golden, basting again with the fat about halfway through the cooking time. When finished roasting, remove each crubeen or pair of crubeens to a separate plate. Garnish with the spare parsley and serve immediately with soda bread and stout.
To make the knife-and-fork-friendly version of this dish: After cooking the trotters, remove them from the cooking liquid as above, then drain and allow to cool until you're able to handle them. After unwrapping them, pull the meat off the bones with your fingers. (As you bone each trotter, try to keep as much of the skin in one piece as you can.)
When all trotters are boned, divide the meat into as many parts as there were trotters, making sure that each part has at least some trotter skin. Line a small bowl with Saran wrap / plastic wrap and put a piece of the trotter skin face down in the bottom of it. Then pack the bowl full of a portion's worth of trotter meat, pressing down firmly. Fold the plastic wrap over the meat and seal well. Lift out the sealed-up patty and refrigerate for at least two hours. The meat will set fairly firm in its own juices and gelatine.
After two hours, preheat the oven as above. Unwrap each patty and have ready beaten egg and bread crumbs or cornflake crumbs as above. Dip each patty in egg and then roll in crumbs. Heat bacon fat or oil in an ovenproof dish as above; spoon the hot fat over each breaded patty and roast for half an hour at 220C / 450F, basting again at the fifteen-minute mark. Lift out carefully when the cooking is finished, and garnish as above: serve with a green salad, and stout.