So many times we have driven past an area and said “We really must try the restaurants around here.” And never get around to it. Well, we finally do this time.
One Saturday night, hubby Dean is scheduled to drum at a jazz gig but is replaced due to some communication problem. I had already arranged a sitter for our son, Harvey, so we don’t want to waste the opportunity. We hop on a tram down Smith Street, Collingwood and get off just before Gertrude Street. At night, this area just buzzes with bars and restaurants. It’s quite amazing how places can look so different day and night. Restaurants, bars and clubs light up with flashy neon signs. People laughing and wandering about looking at menus on restaurant windows, peering into places deciding whether this is the place or not to head into.
One of the true pleasures in life is stumbling upon places that surprise you.
Apart from the name (which according to the website, is the name of the mother of one of the owner’s friends), the first thing you notice about Josie Bones as you approach the front doors are the handles. Metal pig trotters pointing towards you inviting you to shake its “hand” before you enter.
Once seated, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by this massive image on the wall above the bar, outstanding in many ways. “Is it an erotic image of a pig lying on its back?” we wonder. After all, we are in a place promoting the humble pig. The waitress satisfies our curiosity by letting us know it is actually a rabbit. It’s a talking point but not being into erotic images of rabbits, it is the one thing that unsettles me a little. Still, cannot help looking at it.
Below to the right of the rabbit is a count of how many people they have converted into beer drinkers and how many people they have converted into meat eaters. The beer drinker conversion rate is much higher, as expected. But does it mean that they have got a person to drink a whole glass of beer or have a sip? Does it mean a vegetarian has tasted some prosciutto? I plan to ask for clarification next time we go.
By 7pm, there is no spare seat in the house. It’s packed with couples on dates holding hands across tables, families with big and little kids, friends catching up and, interestingly, Asian tourists.
Josie Bones is another one of the places boasting tasting plates and grazing food. You would think that by now we would be sick of this concept but it really does work because what’s the point of going somewhere if you can’t try EVERYTHING on the menu. And I reckon if you were in a group of 8 or more, you can actually do this. I must also mention that Josie Bones is about beer, serving 250 plus kinds. Lucky Dean, indifferent me! Seems beer is the new wine these days.
So we choose…Duck prosciutto on a bed of braised pearl barley with mustard fruits and candied walnuts…. Pumpkin and smoked cheddar gratin with chestnut crumble…. Slow roasted pork shoulder… Salt cod croquette…Master stock pigs trotter spring roll. I am leaving the telling of the best till last even though we eat it first – pork crackling. I don’t know how you would describe it so let’s just say it’s remotely (very remotely) similar to the version of the pork crackling nibbles you can buy in a bag in the supermarket. But it tastes real. Doesn’t really do its justice – best just to go and try it for yourself.
A couple of weeks later, we happen to be in the area again. Our original choice for dinner is full so we happily end up back at Josie Bones, this time with Harvey. They seat us at the bar which is delightfully more fun than sitting at a table. We get to watch them skilfully slice their delicious bread into very thin pieces. We get to watch them pour beers and wines. Harvey eats everything we order which the wait staff think is wonderful and we don’t even have to order the chips to keep him full. I ask for a little more bread just to make sure.
Josie Bones’ pork crackling inspires us to make our own. I read somewhere that to make perfect crackling, there needs to be a fair bit of fat on the rind so I am happy with my purchase from the butcher, 2.6 kilos of pork shoulder. I did ask the butcher to score the rind but it’s not a great job so Dean has to finish it using a very sharp, brand new Stanley knife blade (it’s the best way). I coat it with Maldon sea salt and a little bit of olive oil. It goes in a very hot oven (240c) for 25 or so minutes, then a further 2 ½ hours at 160c. One of our best purchases is a meat thermometer as every time we use it, the meat is cooked to perfection. Dean carefully cuts the crackling/rind (with fat) away from the rest of the meat which he places in foil to keep warm. We place the crackling on a sheet of baking paper on a tray and in the oven which goes back up to 240. We watch it with great diligence, peering in the oven every couple of minutes or so, taking care it doesn’t burn. When it looks ready, we take it out. Perfect crackling. Best we ever had at home and out. I think we have found the secret.
I haven’t mentioned the rest of the dish yet because that is worth a paragraph in itself. The pork is roasted on a bed of fennel, pear and red onions. This, we know, makes a perfect salad when raw but it makes an unbelievably delicious accompaniment to roast pork. We add around 2 cups of verjuice (white wine or cider would work too) so everything is caramelised and cooked in pork fat (oh so yummy but naughty). The sweetness really complements the meat. Just to make me feel better and not so indulgent, we serve the pork with steamed beans (no butter, no oil, no salt). It works remarkably well.
Josie Bones, you are all you are cracked up to be and some.
Note: We make another one of these a couple of weeks later – slightly different cut of pork, less rind surface. This time the crackling is perfect without having to cut it off and place it back in the oven. So the moral of the story is… there is no written rule on creating the perfect crackling but stick to 240 then down to 160 and you have a very good chance at cracking it!