Are pork scratchings going posh?

By Caroline Lowbridge
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Pork scratchings have long been popular as an accompaniment to a pint of beer, but now they are being sold as a delicacy, served as appetisers at dinner parties and used to top dishes in fancy restaurants. Are pork scratchings going posh?

The idea of pork scratchings may seem revolting to people who have not tasted them, and even to those who have.

Pig skin is cut into strips and cooked, creating a thick crusty layer of animal fat topped by a crunchy rind with the potential to break teeth. Some have the odd hair or two poking out.

They are thought to originate in the West Midlands region of England, which remains a hub of scratching production and consumption.

Image source, Mr Trotter's
Image caption,
Scratchings can be eaten as a snack with a guacamole dip

The Great Western, a real ale pub in Wolverhampton, sells at least 200 packets every week.

"I'm no great scratching lover, but a pint of ale and a bag of scratchings is really quite popular," said landlord Jamie Atkins.

"Each packet is a meal in itself.

"The only thing they don't come with is a portion of gravy."

Some football fans stock up on scratchings when they visit Wolverhampton for away games, as they cannot buy them at home.

Image source, Google
Image caption,
The Great Western sells at least 200 packets of pork scratchings a week

Scratchings even helped form a friendship between some Wolves and Crystal Palace supporters.

"The Crystal Palace supporters came to the pub and loved the scratchings," said Mr Atkins.

"When we played Crystal Palace away the lads arranged to meet up with the Crystal Palace fans in their pub in London, so we sent them down with a sack of scratchings.

"They were over the moon and they became best friends for life, all over a sack of scratchings."

Celebrity scratching fans

Image source, Getty Images
  • Food writer and broadcaster Nigel Slater, who grew up in Wolverhampton, said scratchings are "probably the best pre-dinner nibbles"
  • Actress Cameron Diaz told Elle magazine they were her "favourite snack in the whole world", even with "the bristles"
  • Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal said scratchings are his favourite pub snack
  • Singer Beyonce, who has now announced she is vegan, told Cosmopolitan magazine she snacked on scratchings as part of a low-carb diet

But pork scratchings are no longer exclusive to pubs or butcher's shops.

Now re-branded as "crackling" by many manufacturers, they can be found at the likes of Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Whole Foods and Chatsworth House.

Customers can buy scratchings lightly sprinkled with organic Anglesey sea salt, or try more adventurous flavours such as jalapeno chilli and English mustard.

Image source, Marks and Spencer
Image caption,
Marks and Spencer sells elongated scratchings with a clementine and cranberry dip

Department store Selfridges says scratchings have become "one of the most popular choice of snacks" among their customers, who bought 7,000 units over the past year.

Marks and Spencer sells an elongated version called "pork crackling straws" - cooked with extra virgin olive oil and served with a clementine and cranberry dip - that cost £8 a packet, or 33p per scratching.

Luxury hotel Claridge's stocks its mini-bars with pork scratchings, while upmarket versions are sold in hundreds of garden centres, delicatessens and farm shops.

Existing companies have increased their product ranges to reach new customers, including a gluten free range by FJ Tye & Sons in Wolverhampton.

New firms have also sprung up, including one co-owned by food writers Matthew Fort and Tom Parker Bowles, stepson of the future king of England.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Scratchings are made from the skin and fat of pigs

Rupert Ponsonby, who co-owns the Mr Trotter's brand with the pair, said he eats scratchings "an awful lot", particularly warm ones.

"We put them into things like a lemon and garlic mayonnaise dip, and apple sauce is good, gooseberry sauce is good, guacamole is good."

He also uses them to top dishes, as an alternative to "all those stupid croutons you get given".

He once hosted a pork scratching dinner at a London pub, matching 13 beers to seven courses, including a "totally and utterly wonderful" fish pie topped with scratchings.

Image source, Mr Trotter's

The dark chocolate-dipped scratchings - stood up like Stonehenge, with vanilla ice cream to represent the moon - were apparently "totally and utterly revolting", he stressed.

The brand is starting to export to other countries, selling scratchings to department stores in France and Spain.

"Suddenly it's gone from being a rather odd British food to something which I think will have legs internationally as well," he said.

Data from consumer research company Kantar Worldpanel suggests Midlanders are still the biggest munchers of scratchings in the UK.

The Midlands accounted for 23% of all take home sales of pork scratchings last year.

But the pork scratchings market is still fairly small compared to other foods, worth £14.3m in the 52 weeks ending 24 May.

Sales grew over the two previous years but decreased before that, and Kantar said this was usual market fluctuations.

Glynn Purnell, proprietor and head chef at the Michelin starred Purnell's restaurant in Birmingham, has always liked scratchings.

"Being brought up on a council estate it was almost common fodder," said the chef, who grew up in Chelmsley Wood, Solihull.

He has seen a French version of scratchings served in France, and he has also eaten scratchings as part of tapas when he worked in northern Spain.

"A lot of peasant food has the same sort of things really," he said.

"Years ago we would never throw anything away so the scratching is a by-product of the animal."

Different styles of scratchings

Image source, Thinkstock
  • Pork scratchings traditionally eaten in the UK have a crunchy skin with a crusty layer of fat underneath and are cooked once
  • Double or treble cooking methods result in a lighter scratching, sometimes called pork crackling
  • Another type, often known as pork crunch, are puffy and aerated

Mr Purnell's restaurant has made scratchings from duck and lamb, and also used pork scratchings as part of dishes, such as a slow-cooked pig's cheek.

"They are served as part of a dish so it's giving you the whole taste of the animal," he said.

Image caption,
Glynn Purnell has used scratchings in dishes at his Michelin starred restaurant

Mr Purnell has also noticed a revival of traditional bar snacks, in particular a "massive increase" in Scotch eggs.

Scratchings fit in with both of these trends.

"I just think it's great that great British food and ingredients have come back onto our tables," he added.

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