The cure for bacon lovers

Fed up with mass-produced bacon that oozes water and shrivels to nothing in the pan? Well, here's the tasty alternative...

For centuries, every British pig-owning household made its own bacon. Even city-dwellers kept animals in their basements, until it was outlawed by health regulations in the 1870s. The majority of breeds were chosen for their ability to yield long, fatty flitches (sides) of bacon. The slaughtered pig would be hung for a day and then cured with salt to preserve it through the winter. The cure might be dry (salt) or wet (brine) - sweet, spiced or plain. This "green" bacon could then be smoked if hung up the chimney.

For centuries, every British pig-owning household made its own bacon. Even city-dwellers kept animals in their basements, until it was outlawed by health regulations in the 1870s. The majority of breeds were chosen for their ability to yield long, fatty flitches (sides) of bacon. The slaughtered pig would be hung for a day and then cured with salt to preserve it through the winter. The cure might be dry (salt) or wet (brine) - sweet, spiced or plain. This "green" bacon could then be smoked if hung up the chimney.

Gradually, industrialisation embraced bacon production and leaner pig breeds were developed. An intensively reared, modern, bacon pig takes little exercise and dines on a low-fat feed. Consequently, the animal has far less flavour than a frisky outdoor pig, which develops a tasty marbling of fat through its well-exercised muscles. This "low fat" meat is usually then cured by being injected with brine by hundreds of tiny needles. The resulting bacon absorbs more water and increases its weight. Once subjected to heat, the bacon releases this liquid, leaving you with a pathetic, shrivelled slice.

There is an alternative to these mass-produced rashers. There are still people dedicated to keeping alive the old skills of curing bacon. All, apart from Duchy Original Bacon (available from Waitrose), sell locally and by mail order. Among the finest is Mooreland Foods (01625 548499) in Morley Green, Cheshire, which is run by third- and fourth-generation curers, John and Darren Ward. "We dry-cure our pork with salt," explains Darren Ward, "but you must do it by hand. You have to able to feel the meat, almost caress it, to know how much salt it needs," - the leaner the meat, the more salt it will absorb and the more liquid it will lose.

Pork middles are laid out, flesh-side up, then rubbed and covered with a layer of fine Cheshire rock salt. The process is repeated until 10 flitches are stacked on top of one another. After five days (although the time will vary with each curer), the meat is turned and left for another five days. At this stage, it will be rinsed and hung to dry for up to two weeks. Once dried, it can be smoked for up to 48 hours over oak, beech or maple chippings.

Darren Ward has found that Gloucester Old Spot pigs crossed with Large Whites give his bacon the best flavour and fat-to-lean ratio. Having tasted their Dry Cured Cheshire Bacon, I cannot disagree - it has a gorgeous, well-rounded, salty bacon flavour. Within seconds of being added to a hot pan, it sizzles into an appetising crisp rasher with golden fat. Not a splatter of water in sight. His Sweet Black Bacon, which is dry-cured with salt and dark molasses sugar before being smoked, is equally wonderful.

George Streatfield, bacon-curer for Highgrove's Duchy Original organic pigs, also believes it is essential to physically feel each flitch as you rub in the cure. "We have been dry-curing our own whey-fed pigs from Denhay Farm [in Dorset] for years," he says, "yet we found that the texture of the Highgrove pigs (three-quarters Duroc and one-quarter Landrace) can vary a great deal from ours." Whether this is due to their organic diet, outdoor lifestyle or the cold weather, he cannot tell, but the texture of the meat allows them to gauge how much Maldon sea salt and unrefined sugar to add. The end result is a delicious, lightly salted bacon with sweet undertones. So popular has the Duchy Originals Organic Dry Cured Back Bacon (£3.99, Waitrose) become, that demand has almost outstripped the supply.

Originally, commercially produced British bacon evolved from a method known as the Wiltshire cure. It was developed in the 18th century by a Wiltshire family called Harris. Using rooms chilled by ice, they discovered that they needed much less salt to cure their bacon and hams. The last such bacon factory in Wiltshire finally closed 12 years ago, much to the consternation of Keen's, one their local pig suppliers. Determined to keep the tradition alive, they formed Sandridge Farmhouse Bacon, near Chippenham in Wiltshire (01380 850304). Surprisingly, their wet-cured bacon had the most robust, porcine flavour of all that I tried.

Curers will tell you that bacon made according to early 20th-century recipes is too salty for modern palates. Tastes have changed, as Richard Woodall's family (01229 717237) has witnessed, having cured bacon and hams in Cumbria since 1828. He currently sells two robustly flavoured, salty bacons (one of which is smoked) based on his family's recipe for a Traditional Dry Cure Cumberland Bacon. Yet any attempt to discuss family curing methods will result in Mr Woodall becoming the most reticent of men.

Not surprisingly, bacon curers are by nature very secretive. Working mainly with salt, sodium nitrate and, of course, pork, their success depends on utilising years of experience. Michael Slack of Slack's in Raisbeck, Cumbria (mail order 01539 624667), for example, has developed an unusual wet-cured bacon. His flitches are monitored in their briny baths for seven days before being air-dried for two weeks. The resulting Home Cured Best Back Bacon has an amazingly succulent texture and fine light flavour.

Having eaten my way this week through some of the best bacon I've ever tasted, I urge you to seek out traditionally cured bacon. Breakfast will never be the same again.

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