BRINGING HOME THE BACON

Once the glory of British breakfast, bacon has dwindled into a slimy slice of wetness. But help is at hand, reports Michael Bateman. The old taste is being rediscovered
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The Independent Culture
WHY has nobody mounted a campaign to save our bacon? We've had crusades for better bread, for English apples, for real ale, for country cheeses.

Yet the appallingness of most modern bacon, which oozes a salty pool of white milk and tastes of nothing, beggars belief. By comparison, white sliced cushions of bread, aerated keg beer and plastic-wrapped leaves of moist cheese seem almost palatable.

Bacon, once a proud national favourite, has been sinking to such a low it's a sure bet that the idea of reviving it has occurred to almost nobody. The patient has become so very sick, it would be a kindness to let it go.

The British people, however, have been showing their displeasure. There has been a 10-15 per cent drop in consumption over the past 10 years, admits Andrew Garvey, the bacon expert with the Meat and Livestock Commission. He thinks this is due to a change in eating habits. "People are eating cereal breakfasts or no breakfasts at all," he suggests.

Or could it be that people are turning their backs on a product that has been degraded to the point of no return? "We haven't had any complaints here," he says.

Haven't they? Bacon retailers have been deafened by the protests. "For some time customers have been asking us for bacon that does not shrink and exude white scum when cooked," says Robin Lessiter, the bacon buyer at Sainsbury's. But not at any price. "They also told us they weren't prepared to pay more for the product," he explains.

So Sainsbury's set out to resolve the problem. Now, after three years of technical research, the result - dry-cure bacon - is outselling the company's other bacon products. Safeway, Wait-rose and Tesco sell their own, rather more expensive, dry-cure lines; Marks & Spencer expects to introduce one in April.

But it is Sainsbury's that reckons it has a special affinity with bacon, having introduced its own brand as long ago as the 1880s when it first started up as a grocer (then, the bacon was peat-smoked at Sainsbury's Kentish Town depot). Even today's president, "JD" (Lord Sainsbury), started out in the bacon department. A lot of history and pride was at stake here. If anyone was going to bring home the bacon, it had better be Sainsbury's, they decided.

The job was entrusted to Richard Weal, 42, Sainsbury's meat technical manager, and an unashamed bacon-lover. A former butcher who went on to train in the bacon industry, he gives us his word that bacon really did taste better in the good old days. Young as he is, he has evocative childhood memories of sizzling breakfast bacon. "We used to go camping in the New Forest and I'll never forget the sensation of waking up to the smell of everyone frying bacon on their camp fires. It was wonderful. I can smell it now."

He considers bacon and eggs an appetising treat that is part of our national identity. Other countries have their great smoked and air-dried hams, but none of them have made bacon to the quality that we have achieved over the years.

So how on earth did the heaven of a crispy plate of a bacon turn so dramatically into the hell of a slimy pack of wet rashers? Commercial gain is the answer. Our love affair with bacon goes back to our country roots, when every British cottager reared a pig through the summer to slaughter and salt down for the winter. The valuable hams would probably be sold; the less saleable parts - gammon, collar, shoulder and belly - salted down for family consumption. Bacon was made on every farm until the end of the 18th century, though the preserving function of the cure was more important than the aesthetics of flavour.

John Harris opened the first bacon factory in 1770 in Wiltshire, the county most associated with bacon. Indeed, Wiltshire Cure is the name given to the more common of the two methods of curing bacon. Wiltshire is a wet cure (immer-sing the pork in brine). The other is a dry cure (sometimes known as Ayrshire cure) whereby the pork is rubbed every day with salt and sugar.

"The Wiltshire cure is the more commercial method," says Richard Weal. "A dry cure is labour-intensive. It's slower. But from the commercial point of view, the worst thing about it is that a side of dry-cured bacon loses up to 10 per cent of its weight by evaporation during the process." (Think of it as money draining away.) In any case, the Wiltshire cure can produce perfectly good bacon, and when Richard Weal left technical college to work in a bacon business, dry-cure had been all but abandoned.

Then the cowboys hijacked production. Cowboys, or accountants. In the name of bigger profit margins, manufacturers introduced processes that allowed bacon to absorb extra water to add weight, giving a new meaning to added value. In some cases they used jellying agents.

Isn't that cheating? The government didn't think so, and actually framed food regulations to protect meat companies. As Richard Weal says: "Producers are allowed to add up to 10 per cent extra water to bacon and ham without having to declare it on the pack. Some manufacturers have become very clever at adding 9.99 per cent water." What about a company that makes the apparently honest declaration on a packet that it contains 5 or 10 per cent added water? Hollow laugh. "That actually means 15 or 20 per cent added water," Richard Weal says. "The first 10 per cent doesn't have to be declared."

And we all fell for this? Well, you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time. But in the end people will turn to cereal breakfasts or no breakfast at all.

"I was sure people would eat bacon if it was good enough," Richard Weal insists. "Some dry-cure bacon has been available but it has been too expensive. My brief was to produce it at the right price.'

It would be fascinating to unfold the story of his struggle, poring over pieces of pork in his test kitchen, taking one step forward and two steps back when newly devised machinery failed to meet expectations. Unfortunately, the process is completely confidential. "Actually, the cure is traditional and simple," Richard Weal says. The technology, however, is not, and Sainsbury's is awaiting a patent to protect it.

What is not secret is that Richard Weal teamed up with Unipork, the major bacon producer in Northern Ireland, which shared investment and research into the new process. I visited the Unipork factory in Enniskillen, in a picture-book corner of the province beside Lough Erne which may now begin again to share its amen-ities with tourists.

This is pig country, and the factory processes over a million pigs a year. Bacon is a central plank in the Irish diet but they too have been turning away from the soaking wet, wet-cure bacon. Until Unipork came up with the new dry cure, says its technical manager, John Johnston, his five sons refused to eat bacon. Now they eat it all the time.

Though I am none the wiser in understanding the secret of the process, I did taste the whole range of unsmoked and smoked dry-cure bacon (the smokeries, which are primed with smouldering oak chips, were not off-limits). Streaky and back are already on stream, but in a few months they will be launching dry-cure ham, sweet gammon rashers, and a lovely pork loin which roasts to a juicy moistness reminiscent of the Polish delicatessen speciality, kessler.

It wouldn't be true to say the new dry cure completely recaptures the exact flavour of the bacon of our childhood. It is is less salty. It's milder and sweeter but it does echo a good old-fashioned taste. It's also less fatty since modern pigs are bred to be leaner. I preferred the taste of the dry-cure streaky to the back bacon and have been cooking it at home in a grill pan which allows fat to run off. It keeps its flavour, but the fat that runs off reduces the calorie content of each rasher (59 cals) by about half. The prospect of better breakfasts beckons.

My preferred dry-cure streaky is on sale in Sainsbury's at £1.74 per lb for the unsmoked, £1.84 smoked; the dry-cure back is £2.44 per lb unsmoked and £2.54 smoked. Next in price comes Waitrose (Harris brand) with an un-smoked dry-cure back at £2.78 per lb, followed by Tesco with a dry- cure back at around £2.80 per lb, and Safeway with dry-cure back at £3.18 per lb unsmoked and £3.30 per lb smoked.

So it is that reports of the death of British bacon may be premature and, in any case, BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwiches have been holding their own as Britain's Number One. With better bacon to draw upon we might now see a revival of other bacon dishes, such as a real quiche Lorraine, or crispy bacon salads. Here is one to try.

CRISPY BACON AND FRISEE SALAD

This is popular French salad made with the bitter, curly leaf known confusingly as both chicory and curly endive. Most greengrocers now settle for the more descriptive name frise.

Serves 4

4 thick rashers dry-cure bacon

1 head of frise

2 cloves garlic, peeled

I tablespoon Provenal olive oil

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Grill or fry the bacon till crisp. Reserve fat. Leave bacon to cool.

Discard coarse outer leaves of the frise. Separate inner leaves, wash, and mop dry.

Mash the garlic with salt, using the back of a broad knife. Warm the bacon fat and oil in a pan and stir in the crushed garlic, to dissolve the salt. Add the vinegar and bring to the boil rapidly.

Put the frise leaves in a bowl and toss them with the hot dressing. Crumble the bacon on top with a twist of pepper. !

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