A couple of years ago, my schoolgirl French was pushed to its limits by an enthusiastic bon viveur practically force-feeding me plates of charcuterie and cheese in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of French cuisine. The grand edible finale, he declared, was something called grattons, a particular delicacy of Lyon that was to be treated with great respect. Out came the bowl containing the revered dish, and I leaned forward to see this remarkable regional treat.
"Pork scratchings?" I declared with typical English bluster. "These aren't a delicacy. You can get them in any skanky old man's pub for almost no money at home."
The Frenchman looked peeved, and the parade of cheese and meat plates came to a sudden halt.
A pint and a bag of pork scratchings—you'd be hard pressed to find a more humble yet satisfying English pub snack. But it turns out that my familiarity shouldn't have bred contempt. The French are right: Brits ought to be proud of their scratchings, and Rupert Ponsonby, a keeper of pigs and one of the founders of Mr. Trotter's pork scratchings, is on a mission to make us so.
"It all started in a pub," he begins. Ponsorby's friends, food writers Matthew Fort and Tom Parker-Bowles were meeting for a pint. "There was a whole range of crisps and alongside them was a solitary, see-through, greasy pack of scratchings, and they wondered if something could be done to improve them."
Ponsonby is obviously a man who takes scratchings seriously too, so he, Fort, and Parker-Bowles went in search of people equally passionate, hoping they could help restore the fortunes of the British pork scratching.
They scoured the Black Country in the Midlands, where families would traditionally fatten up a "tunky pig," slaughter it for its meat at Christmas, and then deep-fry the fatty skin so that nothing was wasted. Butchers caught on and since the early 1800s, the region has had a thriving pork scratching industry.
It was the obvious place to look, and the three friends soon found Graham Jebb and Karyn Walker, owners of traditional pork scratching manufacturers RayGray Snacks in Staffordshire.
READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food
"From the start, I've always tried to raise pork scratchings from a level of something that was the equivalent of sawdust in a bag, to something really tasty. Look at my belly," Jebb laughs, pointing to his stomach. "I love pork scratchings. I was up at six this morning sweating in a spin class because I come into work and eat so many of them. They're that good."
Jebb's commitment to sourcing the best ingredients for his pork scratchings was exactly what Ponsonby and co. were looking for.
But there was a slight problem. The pork scratchings being made in the UK at the time were sourced from foreign pigs. As a pig farmer himself, Ponsonby couldn't understand why.
"We were annoyed that an iconic British food wasn't being made with British pork, but with lower welfare pigs," he says.
So Jebb was set the challenge to make scratchings from British pork.
"It was difficult," he explains. "It's a different breed of pig and it's reared completely differently too, so it has a harder skin. If we cooked it the same way, the scratchings came out too hard."
Walker is very clear on what makes the perfect scratching: "There should be a slightly soft layer you can sink your teeth into and then the hard bit for a bit of chew. That's what you'll traditionally find in the pub. And then there's pork crunch which is puffier."
Jebb adds: "The rind for scratchings is taken from the shank, the shin of the forelegs, and it starts out with about 5 milimetres of fat on it. We chop it up and fry it. We lose about two-thirds of the rind this way so that once it's rendered down, it's only got about 2 milimetres of fat."
Pork crunch is made with the rind from the pig's back, which comes with only a millimetre of fat on it, to give a light and puffier meaty crisp.
The oil vats used at the RayGray factory are huge, like the giant communal baths footballers wash in after cup matches. It's a size that Jebb says reflects the British appetite for pork scratchings.
"The turnover across the country is about £30 million or more," says Jebb, "and that's not including pork crunch—just ordinary pork scratchings."
His factory takes in around five tons of British pig shanks every week to make just under two tons of pork scratchings.
"We had to use British pigs," Jebb says. "And because of that, we had to change the way we made the scratchings, so it would work. We came up with a completely new method: we triple cook them."
As the scratchings are fried, the rendered fat becomes oil for the next batch, making the process highly sustainable. This is repeated another two times, with trade-secreted variations to get the desired result.
"It is slightly laborious," says Ponsonby, "but the results of triple cooking were revelatory."
And so Mr. Trotter's pork scratchings were born, the reinvention of the pork scratching had begun, and the group had done their bit to help British pork farmers keep welfare standards.
Ponsonby still admits to being a bit of an experimentalist when it comes to scratchings, pairing them with gin or serving in a bowl warmed through with lemon mayonnaise or gooseberry sauce for dipping.
I try them with applesauce and a pint of a specially brewed chestnut ale, and there's no denying that they're good. These aren't the cheap chippings I scorned my affronted French friend for describing as a delicacy. What he'd make of eating grattons from a bag in a pub, I'm not sure, but he was right about one thing: pork scratchings could be the pièce de résistance of British snacks.
For more pub snacks, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.