Finding Britain's best bacon
What's the secret of a really tasty rasher, whether it's for a sandwich or to to add some sizzle to your stew? Samuel Muston joins the experts in a competition to pick Britain's finest
A couple of years back I was a judge in the finals of the Great Taste Awards, which is “the acknowledged benchmark for speciality food and drink”, according to its tagline. It was, I think, one of the few occasions I might legitimately describe using the word maelstrom. Entering Pillar hall at Olympia at 10.30am on that June morning was like turning off quiet Kensington High Street and finding myself in a Milanese station right before the last train to Rome.
Crowds of porters rushed here and there, dodging between the ranks of judges. Steaming boxes of curry came here and there; trays piled high with meats of all types tottered on finger tips. Strangulated shouts were more than once heard. And the lunchtime spread after all that chewing and slurping and quaffing? It looked like it had been done by the same firm that did Nero's banquets.
Taking the train to Telford last month to judge the Red Tractor Bacon Connoisseur Week Awards (the Brit Awards of the pork world) it was this I had in mind. I had skipped breakfast and I had purchased a large bottle of water for the ride home. But, it seems, they do things differently in Telford.
It would be fair to describe the atmosphere in the room rented for the occasion from Harper Adams University as "languid".
Two straw boaters lie, somewhat unbelievably, on a side table. The atmosphere of a small village fete is only heightened by the distant perfume of cooking hog. There are about eight people in the room. Two ladies are talking about hunting.
Only when the bacon comes out and one of the experts, a pig-farmer's wife who may or may not have escaped from a Thomas Hardy novel, calls out "get stuck in" do the eyes go down and the as-yet-uncooked pork sides receive fit and proper attention.
I have been paired with so-called "baconologist" Keith Fisher, a fourth-generation master butcher in a jaunty blue fedora.
Keith examines the meat before him – and the other 29 rashers which will follow this today – the way a man might examine a diamond. He is, in some senses, merely giving bacon the respect it historically deserves. We eat 226.9 thousand tonnes of it each year and collective chew through 324 million bacon sarnies. But then this product, so peculiar to the British Isles, and so widely copied abroad, has always been of great importance to our diet. Pigs were kept by most cottage-dwellers from the middle ages onwards. The salted and smoked side of pig not only a way to preserve the meat, but also give savour to stodgy dishes (a pulse pottage without bacon is a pitiable thing, as any 17th-century farmhand would tell you). Even as late as 1823, Cobbett wrote in his Cottage Economy that a few rashers of bacon did more for domestic harmony than "fifty thousand Methodist Sermons and religious tracts".
Between Fisher and I there is perfect harmony. He is explaining our task. There are four categories to be judged: brands (small suppliers/farmer's own brand), supermarkets, food services (catering suppliers) and butchers. We will be concentrating on the first of the four, where most of the bacony innovation is taking place. "We want to introduce people to different types of British bacon, not just see a rasher and think it's all the same and the artisan end of the market has seen lots of growth in recent years," he says.
Question is, though, how do you judge a raw piece of sweet-chilli-cured bacon, which is what has now been plonked in front of us? Apparently, says Keith, it comes down to style.
"Sort of like in the 'fashion fades, only style remains' sort-of-way," I offer. Fisher nods.
Whether it is dry-cured (hand-rubbed with a salt mixture, vacuum-packed and left for at least five days) or wet-cured (soaked in a brine mixtures for two days), we are looking for the same thing, he says. "This sweet-chilli rasher is shapely and uniform with neat ends and it has an even pink colour with no little red dots." Dots are the enemy, he says, as they imply the cure hasn't taken evenly. "Hold it up – it should look like a silk curtain."
After a few minutes the unmistakeable harbingers of cooked bacon – that smell, rich of salt and burnt fat – announces the arrival of a still-sizzling piece of the sweet-chilli cure.
"The end where the muscle is always tastes better than the loin because of the marbling of fat, so you have that bit," says Fisher.
The flavour of sweet chili is subtle and even throughout. It is a fine thickness and has shrunk little in the cooking (it clearly hasn't been pumped with water – the bête noir of bacon). There is no blast of salt. It is quite beautiful, staring up at us from its paper plate. We score it in the low 90s (a good-to-average mark) and send it on its way.
At this point I am distracted by a loud chortle-cum-whinny from the ladies at the next table. Frances Slade and Hillary Cuttell, the owners of the boaters on the side table, are chuckling at one of the essay-length descriptions the "artisanal makers" have offered with their bacon. "We've also had 'smoked over Norwegian spruce pines' today and another that smelt like a pack of cigarettes," says Slade.
We all try one that promises, among other wonders, "cracked black pepper, thyme and juniper cure", but we all agree that it tastes more of hubris than anything else.
Unlike Fisher, Slade and Cuttell are not butchers. They are part of a group called Ladies in Pigs, they tell me, as the bacon is taken away and a light fruit-and-cheese lunch appears.
"Our sole aim," says Slade, pulling at her Mrs Thatcher-style handbag, "is to increase the consumption of British pork and ham."
The boater hat, it turns out, is an honour given to someone who gives up at least four days a year promoting bacon. "I was chairman for 12 years," says Slade, "so gave up one or two days more than that."
The ladies and their hats tour the country in a camper van ("like a band," says Cuttell) setting up at fairs, outside shops and in car parks, cooking up the best of British bacon, giving out tasters and explaining in a no-nonsense way why British pork deserves support. Slade is forthright: "Not only is it not pumped full of water like European bacon, it is less cruel. The UK has been free of pig tethers and stalls for 15 years now and British pig farmers don't have it financially easy."
But what of the health issues? The Government recommends we only eat 70g a day, or about two rashers (though a subsequent report in the journal BMC suggests eating only a third of that). "We aren't saying eat bacon like a chop. We want people using it in all sorts of ways – and not just for breakfast, either. It is wonderful as a flavour enhancer – like anchovy in a pasta sauce," says Slade.
At times they may sound like a passage from Sara Perry's book Everything Tastes Better With Bacon, but they are sincere and informed. Farming and butchery has been their life.
On the train home, I calculate I must have eaten my 70g share by a fair multiple. I have become acquainted with rindless bacon, streaky and back, beer bacon that tastes like peanuts, maple bacon and a rasher that smells like a pack of Silk Cuts. I am baconed out; wrought low with pork. Couldn't look at it.
But I know – and bacon knows – that like a lover that spurns, I'll be back.
Breakfast is, after all, at least 12 hours away.
Denhay dry cured smoked back bacon
Morrisons old-fashioned cure British back bacon, from Cranswick Gourmet Bacon
Midland Bacon's Wiltshire cured back bacon flavoured with sweet chilli
Cheerbrook Quality Farm Foods' traditional dry cured back bacon
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