A few days ago, after having made a delicious Pate de Campagne (recipe to follow soon!), I decided it was time to return to one of my favorite French recipes, rillettes. Pronounced (in English) REE-YETS, it's a delicious form of pottted pork. I know that doesn't sound terribly appetizing. This is why we use the French word!. Very similar to Mexican Cochinita, it is pieces of pork cooked in fat similar to a confit, a few extra spices for flavoring, and shredded before serving.
I was fortunate to grow up in an region of France known as Touraine where the very best rillettes are made. Many will say the best come from Le Mans, but there are none to compare to those from the Department of Indre-et-Loire of which the town of Tours is the capitol. The basic recipe dates from the period of Rabelais, 16th century, and those from Indre-et-Loire are recognized officially as Les Rillettes de Tours and are certified much like specialty wines from the various regions of France. It's a big deal. Now, even within Indre-et-Loire there are variations...Azay le Rideau, Montlouis, and Blere (my favorite) as well as other small towns have charcutiers (butchers specialising in pork) who may vary their recipes slightly and everyone seems to have their favorite. But the actual recipe differences they say are more subtle than a French existentialist argument. Frankly, I think it's the wine used that makes all the difference. There are some excellent white wines in the region, each a little different from the next.
The Rillettes de Tours, because they are certified, are made with a combination of pork cuts that vary only slightly: 50% pork belly and pork shoulder, 50% ham, and pork loin. For certified Rillettes de Tours the recipe cannot have more than 75% (combined) pork shoulder and pork belly. The meat is cut into pieces about 5x5 cm square and very slightly browned in pork fat after which we add the spices and wine then let the whole thing cook for about 4-16 hours depending on quantity, oven temperature, and the patience of the chef. When cooled enough to handle, the meat is shredded, much like American pulled pork, and then potted with a good covering of the reserved fat to protect it from air. If you want to freeze rillettes, it is better to freeze the raw meat, rather than the cooked meat. Same-same pates.
Finally, rillettes are just a method of preserving meat so feel free to experiment a bit with the flavors. I've seen recipes that call for chopped white onions, whole purple onions, leeks, shallots, celery, mace, Chinese 5-Spice, and more. Next time I'm going to do the big brother of rillettes known as rillons!
So, here's the recipe and watch out for those bones!
3 kg mixed pork meat. If you only use one cut, shoulder is the best but throw in a little quality loin if you can!
3/4 -1 kg real pork lard (approximately depending on how much fat is in the meat cuts you use. The ratio should be about 40-50% fat overall)
1 bottle minus one small glass dry, white wine
1 heaping TBS Kosher salt
1 TBS black pepper corns, slightly crushed
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 laurel leaves, whole
3/4 tsp dried thyme
Cut the pork into 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 inch squares and brown in pork lard in a large pot that can also be put into the oven. Browning is an important first step to give flavor! After browning, add remaining lard, spices, and wine then bake, partially covered at very low temperature 80 degrees Celsius or 180 Fahrenheit until the wine is cooked down and the pork is pull-apart tender. Sip the small glass of white wine and see if you can make it last the 6-8 hours of cooking time.
Remove from oven and drain the melted lard through a sieve and set aside. Then, using a pair of forks, pull the pork pieces apart, shredding all the large pieces. If you had any bones, make sure you get them all! During the shredding process you want the pork to stay visibly moist so occasionally add some of the reserved, liquid lard to the mix.
When all is shredded, put the pork into sterilized jars and cover with a good portion of the strained lard. This will keep the meat away from air and preserve it for several weeks in the refrigerator.
Serve with toasted French bread slices and tiny cornichons!