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  • Michael

#0054: Pack A Mac

My love of the west coast was born of water.

It was forged on the weed strewn shores of distant sea lochs.

In plunge pools on remote mountainsides.

And on endless adventures in the Argyll rain.

Back in the Pennines of my childhood, where Atlantic winds would carry saturated air over the hills until fat drops wept down on us in longing for the open ocean, we thought we knew a thing or two about rain. But, from heavy raindrops hammering on the window, demanding that I stay cosied up in bed, to drizzly mists which cling to the treetops, and soak me to the skin, I have come to learn that the Secret Coast has as many types of rainfall as the Inuit people have words for snow.

As I venture off the road and scramble up into the woods, following the low rumble of water crashing down the hillside and tumbling over rocks, cold droplets fall from branches overhead, and run down my neck.

They gather in the long grass and graze my legs with glistening streaks.

They twinkle on cobwebs in the pale autumn light.

Saturated sphagnum moss, at home in permanently wet landscapes, glints like crystals in the shadows, lurking in the wings, ready to soak through my clothes should I get too close.

Yet for all of this, the rain paints the Secret Coast with a magic all of its own.

Sudden, dramatic deluges pass as quickly as they came, leaving every surface sparkling, whilst the scent of cool, wet earth tumbles in through the open window.

Yellow oilskins shine bright against a backdrop of greens made vivid and fresh by the rain, whilst newly formed puddles offer glimpses of an inverted world.

Best of all, that low rumble becomes a deafening roar as the hidden waterfalls of Glendaruel surge unstoppably to life.

All along the glen, fast moving burns and rivers rush down the steep hillsides, carving out narrow gullies between the dense trees, where they drape themselves over rocks in thin, silvery manes, then coil over dizzying precipices, smashing themselves into hazy clouds of shimmering spray before tumbling into crystal pools below.

Just follow your ears after heavy rain, and you’ll find them.

And once you’re done, arriving home glistening with rainfall and spray, you’re going to want something to warm you up.

Mac and cheese is straight up comfort food, perfect for curling up with after an adventure in the cold, wet wilderness. Everyone has their own favourite version but, for me, slow cooked pulled pork takes mac and cheese to the next level. This definitely isn’t diet food but, after a long day out in the rain, it’s exactly what I need as I pull off my boots and cosy up in front of the fire.

Start by removing the rind from a 1.5kg shoulder of pork. Strip the excess fat from the rind, score the rind in a diamond pattern with a sharp knife, then set it aside, uncovered in the fridge, until later.

Next, combine four tablespoons of light brown sugar, two tablespoons of smoked paprika, one tablespoon each of mild chilli powder and crushed cumin seeds, two teaspoons of dried thyme and quarter of a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes. Rub the mixture all over the pork shoulder, and set it aside for a moment.

Mix a finely chopped onion, 250g of barbecue sauce, 120g of cider vinegar, 120g of ham stock, a tablespoon each of English mustard and Worcestershire sauce, three bay leaves and two sprigs of fresh rosemary in a slow cooker, then add the pork, ensuring that is is completely covered in the mixture, pop the lid on and leave it to cook on the high setting for six hours.

After about four and a half hours, rub the pork rind with olive oil and a tablespoon of coarsely ground salt, place it on a rack over a baking tray, and roast it in a pre-heated fan oven at 200°C for about an hour, or until the rind is bubbly, golden and crisp. Once done, remove your pork crackling from the oven, leave it to cool for a few minutes, then break it into bite sized pieces.

Once the pork shoulder has been cooking for six hours, turn off the heat and transfer it to a shallow dish. Remove any obvious fatty pieces, then shred the meat using two forks. Pass the remaining liquid in the slow cooker through a sieve to remove any obvious fat, the bay leaves and the rosemary sprigs, then return the remainder to the cooker along with the pulled pork and a ladle full of the sieved liquid, cover it, and set it aside until later.

Finely slice ten cloves of garlic, and set them aside until later. Then melt 50g of butter in a heavy bottomed casserole dish, on a low to medium heat, and stir in 50g of plain flour until it forms a thick paste. Add the garlic and keep stirring until it starts to turn golden, then slowly add one litre of skimmed milk, continuing to stir so that no lumps form. Still stirring, add two finely chopped sprigs each of rosemary and thyme, two teaspoons of English mustard, half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, three bay leaves, half a grated nutmeg, and a generous grind each of salt and pepper, bring it to the boil, and then leave it to simmer over a low heat.

Next, cook 500g of dried macaroni, then drain it, retaining a small amount of the cooking water. Take the white sauce off the heat and add the pasta, along with 100g of soft cheese, 150g of grated mature cheddar and 75g of grated Parmesan. Give it a good stir, then carefully mix in the pulled pork. The mixture will thicken whilst it’s cooking, so add some of the retained cooking water from the pasta if you need to loosen it up a little.

Top the macaroni cheese with breadcrumbs and a little more grated Parmesan, and bake it at 200°C for about twenty minutes, then add a handful of lightly oiled, roughly chopped rosemary sprigs, and bake for another ten minutes before serving to your hungry, wet explorers.

If there’s any left over, your mac and cheese will keep in the fridge for a few days and makes a great packed lunch, ready to join you on your next adventure out splashing through the puddles.

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