Porchetta is the roast pork popular in central Italy, often sold by street vendors outside shopping plazas, at festivals and in marketplaces (one great porchetta stand that springs to mind is the one in Rome's famed Campo de Fiori marketplace). In fact, it's such an important part of local cuisine in the Lazio region that Porchetta di Ariccia was last year granted Protected Geographical Indication status by the country's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
The term "porchetta" traditionally refers to a whole boned and roasted young pig (not to be confused with a whole roasted suckling pig, or maialino) - specifically one which has been flavoured with herbs, garlic and seasoning and cooked until the skin turns to golden crackling. Under the official guidelines, Porchetta di Ariccia, for example, must include the flavours of rosemary, pepper and garlic. In other regions, such as Umbria, wild fennel is typically used.
Porchetta is prepared, according to Gillian Riley's The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, by boning the pig, singeing and scalding its skin, and stuffing it with its own offal, fresh herbs and other seasonings. It's then secured with string and roasted slowly in a woodfired oven. Traditional porchetta vendors serve it cold and thinly sliced to order, often between slices of bread.
"The expression 'in porchetta' can mean 'cooked and seasoned like a whole roast pig', usually with fennel, the characteristic seasoning," writes Riley, "but can be applied to other meats, or to fowl…".
Following this logic, we've called our version of porchetta "pork shoulder alla porchetta", as we've used only the shoulder of the pig but cooked it in the manner of the whole pig.
Start by preparing the skin. For the best crackling, the skin should be as dry as possible. With a sharp knife or a Stanley knife, carefully score it at intervals of about 1cm to 2cm. To help open up the cuts, pour boiling water over the skin (avoid the flesh), then pat it dry with absorbent paper. Scatter it with plenty of sea salt, rubbing it into the cuts to draw out moisture. If you have the time, you can dry the skin even further by leaving the pork uncovered in the refrigerator overnight.
For the stuffing, we've used roasted fennel seeds crushed in a mortar and pestle with a mix of fresh Italian herbs - oregano, parsley, rosemary - and some garlic, but you could use a small food processor if you prefer.
To create a pocket for the stuffing, you'll need to butterfly the pork. Turn the pork skin-side down and carefully make an incision from the centre horizontally outwards through the middle of the meat, stopping short of the end. Repeat with the other half of the pork, then open out the two flaps so the pork is one long flat piece.
Spread the herb stuffing over the flesh, fold each side back in, then roll the pork tightly to enclose the stuffing. Secure the roll at intervals with kitchen string.
To get good porchetta crackling, you'll need to start or finish the cooking process with a blast of high heat. We prefer to start the cooking at a low temperature so the meat stays succulent, then drain off the pan juices and deglaze the pan with a little wine before giving the meat a final blast of heat.
Rest the meat uncovered in a warm place so the skin doesn't sweat. To serve, remove the crackling and break it into pieces, then slice the meat. Arrange both on a large serving platter, topped with plenty of the pan juices. Porchetta is delicious stuffed into crusty ciabatta with an Italian-style slaw, or simply served with roast potatoes as we've done here. All you'll need to balance the richness are some blanched bitter greens such as chicory, and yours will be a very happy table.