Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Makin (your own) Bacon

Bringing home the bacon

With sales of gourmet rashers on the rise, it seems Britons can't get enough bacon. Tim Hayward is no exception but, tired of shelling out a small fortune on the stuff, he decided to follow in his grandmother's footsteps and cure his own ...

Wednesday December 19, 2007
The Guardian

Tim Hayward and his bacon
Tim Hayward and his bacon. Photograph: Linda Nylind

According to a recent article in The Grocer the average Brit is now eating bacon three times a week and apparently this six per cent rise in sales is down to the growth in popularity of "premium and organic bacon".

Good news for bacon producers, but it should give foodies pause. Fashionably artisanal bacon from organic pigs can cost anywhere between £12 and £18 a kilo - about twice the price of the pork it is originally made from.

People have been salting pork since ancient Egyptian times. All over the world, from the beams of Tennessee cabins to the lofts of Parma, salt pork hangs drying.

It's not some high-tech mystery. Any peasant with access to a pig and salt has made bacon in whatever hut, yurt or hovel they called home. Heck, my granny salted pork in a council house. If she could do it, I thought, then so can I.

Day one: meat

Bacon used to be home cured in sides or "flitches" which, despite being a quarter of a pig, tempts me. In the end though, after a consultation with the butcher, I choose a 2kg piece of boned loin from an amply upholstered organic Tamworth. This will give me about 50 rashers' worth, much of which I plan to freeze in packets of eight.

Day two: sweet

Preserving processes fill cooks with trepidation, dicing as they do with putrescence. Even something as homely as jam making is a campaign of sterilisation against the terrors of mould and fermentation. This is why, somewhere along the line, salting meat became a process we handed over to experts.

Now, staring at a socking great lump of pig meat which I'm intending to leave lying around for a week, I'm suddenly and uncharacteristically nervous. I decide to call in some advice and phone Stephen Harris, chef at The Sportsman in Seasalter, near Whitstable. He's well known for his home-cured bacon and hams, even going so far as to make his own salt. Within minutes he has given me his own recipe for a sweet maple cure and made kind, reassuring noises.

Emboldened, I pour 250ml of maple syrup over the pork, coating it completely, and store it in the fridge overnight. Last thing before bed and first thing in the morning I turn the meat.

Day three: salt

I didn't realise there was quite so much to think about with salt, but Stephen is full of advice and unnerving zeal. We're going to need a fair bit. Granulated table salt has chemical additives to help it flow freely and the sexy Malden crystal stuff costs the same per gramme as cocaine. Sea salt though, particularly the moist French stuff called "sel gris", is pure, comes in big, crunchy lumps and is surprisingly cheap. I lift the pork out of the syrup and rub 300g of salt into it, like an exfoliating scrub. It's a worryingly beguiling sensation.

Day four: metamorphosis

Stephen calls. It's time to change the cure. I lift out the meat and rinse off the salt and syrup. There's been a distinct change. What was a pallid and flabby piece of pig has darkened and firmed into a texture that, for some reason, calls to mind Gordon Ramsay. It is definitely bacon. I work in 300g of fresh salt and pour over a further 250ml of maple syrup.

Day five: obsession

The sea salt doesn't dissolve in the syrup so, at least six times during the day, I plunge my hands into the cold liquid, lift up handfuls of salt from the bottom of the bowl and rub it into the meat. There's something calming about a process that spreads over days. In lulls at work, my mind strays to the fridge. I imagine the flavours working their way into the meat. My four-year-old is fascinated. I've been reading her Little House on the Prairie and she's become obsessed with storing food for the winter. She rushes in from school and immediately asks if she can "rub the bacon".

Day six: madness

Stephen says that, once the cure has been changed, the bacon can just stay in the fridge and only needs to be turned twice a day. Poor fool! How can he know? I'm now attending to the bacon at hourly intervals. At lunchtime I begin speaking to it. It is just before bed, when I'm setting the alarm for the 3am "turn and rub" that I realise things may have got out of hand.

Day seven: triumph

Washed clean of the cure and patted dry with a towel, the bacon looks like something in an 18th-century still life. The fat is creamy, the lean centre dark and lustrous. Bacon is unique among meats in its power to move the soul. Even sworn vegetarians can be swayed by bacon ... if they say they can't they're lying.

Stephen says the bacon can be soaked for a few hours if you prefer it less salty. I snort in scorn. He says it should be allowed to mature for two days - I let it mature for precisely as long as it takes me to sprint to the corner shop for a pack of thick, doughy, white-sliced.

I take off three slices with the staggeringly expensive Japanese yanagiba knife that I've sworn to use only for sashimi and slap them the hot pan. At first, I can't work out why it looks so odd until I realise that it hasn't immediately yielded a pool of milky water like a commercial rasher.

On an average day, the smell of bacon frying can make me salivate but the smell of my own has me howling like one of Pavlov's dogs. Finally I take my first bite. I'd describe the taste but that isn't half of the sensation. There's the knowledge that I've made it myself, the connection with centuries of food history, the towering feeling of having brought home the bacon without an ounce of hyperbole. I choke back a tear.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

If there's no nitrites added, you leave yourself at the risk of botulism which, while rare, is very very serious.