Wednesday, 27 January 2010

BACON (and the store cupboard quick supper of choice)

I was given this book for my birthday 3 months ago by my friend Martin, with whom I lived for about half of last year.  He's the most foodie of any of my friends, including those who work in kitchens.  We like Martin, he's ace.  He'd been given a copy himself the Christmas before and had noted quite how much I read it and decided I should have my own copy.  Ace.  It's already had more use (in terms of actual following of recipes as opposed to reading over breakfast for ideas) than many other books I've owned for years.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is an odd chap, but his is a life I'd like to lead.  Yes, he's a TV cook, which isn't the interesting bit.  He has a farm in Devon where he produces rare breed high welfare meat.  He gives the impression of being more keen amateur than professional chef - an enthusiast.  He did training with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe, who were also responsible for Jamie Oliver.  I'd love to eat at their restaurant, they appear to be the grandparents of the modern British food movement.  His food is hearty and exuberant and emphasises all the things that I think are fundamental to the way we eat: it should taste good, it should be respectful of ingredients particularly if any of those ingredients came from an animal, it should show an awareness of tradition but not be bound by it.  This book expounds his 'nose to tail' eating philosophy as well as underlining the importance of understanding meat and meat production in order to make best use of what is a precious resource - which we have the privilege and not the right to eat.  ...having said that, I'm still not keen on most offal.  One day, I will own a cat and a dog and they will eat the offal of the animal and I will eat the rest, and everyone will be happy.  Ish.  It's not like I wouldn't be feeding the pets anyway...  I need to learn to like offal.

(finished product)

I had a go at making bacon from this a year or so ago, with a good piece of free range pork belly I picked up at the Cambridge Sunday Farmer's Market.  It was a reasonably successful essay and taught me a few things for this time around - for a start, buy a decent sized piece of belly.  A kilo, at least.  The tiny piece I used before was clearly an end, very thin, which meant that I actually needed to cure it for far less time than I did.  H F-W in the book suggests buying a whole belly, weighing in at, at a guess 5 odd kilos.  No.  I don't need that much bacon.  I don't have ROOM for so much bacon.  I guess that's a problem with the book, really.  It assumes you need to feed 20 people at a time and have outbuildings with chest freezers and smokers and space to hang hams and pheasants.  I live in a flat in the centre of town.  My parents have most of those things, but even down there I wouldn't want to hang anything that needed somewhere dry in the llama/STUFF shed.  Not because of the llamas, but because it's so DAMP in that valley.  Anyway.  Everything is scaleable, and it is useful on occasion to know how to spit roast a pig over a wood fire in order to feed 90 people.  (This is quite high up my List Of Things To Do Someday - possibly in the ADC yard next summer.)  I bought a piece of pork belly from this butcher in a village not far from here.  When my mum first stopped eating factory farmed meat getting on for 15 years or so ago now, this company was about the only place selling higher welfare stuff and the two local shops (there are outlets all over the country now) were weekly pilgrimage spots.  They still guarantee meat of higher welfare than practically anywhere else.  It's not cheap, mind!  Pork belly is a cheap cut always, but my 1.3kg came in at £15...  But pork is second only to chicken in the levels of abuse meted out to the animals, and therefore I'm prepared to try that much harder and pay that much more to get it.  Plus, you never need a great deal of bacon in any dish to make it 'bacon-y', so this should last me some time.

(naked belly, as it came)
The actual process of making bacon is very simple indeed.  It takes little prep time and no special equipment or unusual ingredients.  It is true that we're only talking about what might properly be called 'salt pork' here - I prefer it smoked myself, particularly for adding to things.  However, I haven't got a cold smoker or anywhere to light a fire and hang the meat for 24 hours.  One day...  So.  You have your piece of belly.  Now, the cure.  Essentially, this is 2 parts coarse salt to 1 part dark brown sugar with some flavourings.  The book recommends a couple of bay leaves handful of juniper berries but I'd run out of the latter so opted instead for 5 or 6 cloves and a few blades of star anise, aniseed always being a good flavour with pork.  I used 100g of salt and 50g of dark brown sugar at first but I had to make up another batch with 50g of salt and 25g of sugar and some more of the flavourings after a few days. I ground up the spices and the bay leaves with a bit of the salt in a pestle and mortar and mixed it all together.  It was sitting on the side in my kitchen for the days I was curing the pork and kept getting added to other things because it smelled fantastic.

All you do is take handfuls of the cure and rub it into all sides of the meat.  Stick it in the fridge, covered with paper or loosely with clingfilm (not sealed, that's how you grow bugs...).  Walk away.  Come back tomorrow, drain of the liquid drawn off by the salt, rub in more cure.  Go away.  Repeat for about 5 days total.  You can go on longer, which will increase the keeping quality, but it will become only fit for stews and not for frying up.  THAT is it.  How easy is that?  And what you get at the end is this:

(large pieces here for freezing, little bits are quite large lardons for a stew I'm planning for when Charissa! and! Tedd! get! here! on! Friday!.  Chicken, leek, mushroom, bacon, since you ask.  If I'm not too excited by visitors to take photos, I will blog that too...)

A few notes:
  • H F-W suggests adding a pinch of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to the cure.  This is what keeps the bacon pink when you cook it, instead of turning grey the way pork normally does.  However - saltpetre is a controlled substance because it's one of the ingredients of gunpowder.  My mum has a salt beef recipe I adore that has saltpetre in and which she hasn't made for ages in part because getting hold of this is hard.  However - the average butcher can source it.  She suggested smiling nicely and they might give you a tiny amount if they're reasonably sure you're not going to blow anyone up.  I don't think it's worth the hassle. 
  • When I first made this, I left the belly meat-side down, skin-side up in the cure.  This meant that the skin dried out and was actually impossible to cut let alone eat or use once the meat was cured.  This time, I scored the skin into rectangles (the size in the last photo) just in case, and made sure I put it skin-side down so that it sat in the liquid drawn out.  The scoring probably helped the cure to penetrate as well, and anyway the skin wasn't so hard this time.  So.  Skin-side down.
  • The little pieces I fried up just now to taste from my 6ish day cure were quite salty but no more so than the most salty commercial cures.  Edible, certainly.  The aniseed edge came through nicely.  Next time, I think I'll try smoked paprika and fennel seed along with the bay in the cure.  I like the aniseed note, and I'm hoping that the smoked paprika will add an edge of smokiness that I'm longing for in my bacon...
As for what to DO with home-made bacon.  Well.  I have ambitions around chicken casserole and baked beans, but the way I most usually eat bacon is as part of the immediate I-need-food-now meal below:

Pasta, Pesto, Peas, Preserved Pork Product ( which I mean bacon. Or salami. Or chorizo. What it says, really. All work great)

Erm.  These are above, really.  There isn't much more to it.  But...for one person I use:
75-100g pasta
A small mug of frozen peas
1 rasher of bacon, about 35g at a guess? Or an inch of sausage. As much as you like is fine, but I hoard my meat products and use them sparingly...
A large teaspoonful of green pesto. Or red. Or even just a clove of garlic chopped small and some olive oil. (If just garlic, fry it for a few seconds (no more) with the bacon.)
Black pepper
Oil for frying

Boil the pasta in salted water, adding the peas for the last few minutes before it's ready.
Meanwhile, shred the pork into tiny pieces.  I'm virtually always doing this from something I've taken straight from the freezer (I freeze bacon in single rashers, or use a large knife and brute force and hack pieces off the frozen together lump...), which means I can get pieces a few millimetres square - just so long as they're quite small so that every forkful of pasta will have a bit of bacon in it.  Fry in a small amount of olive oil until the fat runs and it goes brown and crispy.
Drain the pasta and peas and return them to the pan.  Scrape in the bacon bits and any fat in the pan.  Stir in pesto.  Grind over pepper.  Eat as fast as you can because you have to be somewhere else, being grateful that proper supper took you all of 10 minutes to make.  Don't forget to soak the pan with the pesto in it, that stuff's a pain to wash up...


  1. is it okay that i'm more excited about this than about valentine's day coming up? last winter we cut a pig on a nearby farm, brought it home, cut it up ourselves, make bacon, pastrami, sausages, liver pate and my house smelled completely horrid for two weeks after that, so much so, that i didn't feel like eating any meat. my husband built a smoker to hold everything behind the garage but even with that distance i couldn't open a window without getting smoked. so maybe smaller projects are best! besides, we ended up giving a lot of it away. and, i don't know waht offal is. i wonder if it's a british term, will have to look it up.

  2. I'm DEFINITELY more excited by bacon than Valentine's Day. Totally with you there. And I'm jealous of your pig butchery! Next on my list to make is something like a spanish chorizo. That might be a while though, I need a mincer and somewhere to hang the sausage to dry - which just won't be possible in this flat. Do try this cure, I promise it smells great.

    Offal. I think the term is used in all English-speaking countries to a greater or less extent. I believe that sometimes in the States they say 'variety meats' instead...which I actually find hilarious... :-)!

  3. bacon never goes to waste in my house, i'll defintetely try this, but i'll forgo the anise as we're not big on that.
    as far as offal, you'll have to make pate. you'll be seriously in love with liver. it's a whole new thing, nothing like the stuff you buy at the supermarket. simmered with a ton of onion, belly meat and a dozen aromatics, then ground into unctuous heaven. my grandma doesn't have a blog, but i can email you the recipe if you'd like :))

  4. Pick what you like for the spices - as I say, the convention would be juniper.

    I don't actually like pate, I think because of the liver. My mum has made it now and again and it's always in evidence at farmer's markets and food fairs and so on - which means I have had the chance to try the best out there (from the UK and from most of the rest of Europe too...there are advantages to living in a small place!), but I just don't like it... I'd love to see the recipe though, I'm always up for new recipes! And you are right, I should probably try it again...

  5. One of the fellows at St John's used to regually make us various pates for the food and wine society, although most of them were bulked out with pork from what I remember, with extra stuff added for flavour. Really nice.

    The one exception was a pseudo pate, consisted of avocado with a little bit of smoked salmon and - I think - a bit of lemon juice.

    I wonder if I can persuade them to do another one. If they do, would you want to be my guest?

  6. BTW - do you cut the bacon pre-cure or post-cure?

  7. That sounds very exciting! I would totally be up for being your guest...but...I will have to be persuaded on the pate front, liver or no liver! Obviously depends when it is... :-).

    Cut bacon after cure, definitely, or it'll be far too salty and dry out. I just scored the skin so that I made sure I could cut through it when I came to it when the cure was over - because the skin was really tough when I tried this the first time around.