Country Matters: Such bacon as dreams are made on

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN did you last find a piece of decent bacon? Goaded by poor, soft textures and lack of flavour, I set sail for deepest Wiltshire, and in particular for Sandridge Farm, near the village of Bromham, where Roger Keen and his wife, Rosemary, have made a spirited effort to re-establish techniques and standards of yesteryear.

It was clear at once that the Keens know what they are up to. Roger, a stocky, apple-cheeked man of about 50, was born and bred on the 300-acre farm. Not only does he cure bacon and hams: he rears the pigs, thus giving himself control over every phase of the operation.

His 300 breeding sows live outside in summer, but spend the winter indoors, for the land is so heavy and wet that they would churn it to a morass if they remained in the fields. Their diet is a mixture of ground wheat (grown on the farm), soya meal, wheat feed (a form of bran) and whey, which comes up by tanker from the cheese farms of Somerset. The meat pigs go for slaughter to an abattoir less than a mile away, which ensures minimum travel and stress.

Twenty years ago Bromham was surrounded by curing factories - at Chippenham, at Calne and in other country towns, for Wiltshire has long been famous as a source of bacon; but then, one by one, the factories began to close down, and it was this steady erosion of outlets that prompted the Keens to process their meat themselves. Until five years ago, Roger had cured bacon only as a hobby, but then he took advantage of the Government's first schemes designed to encourage diversification, and went into the business as a professional. Luckily, he was able to recruit several skilled men who had lost their jobs in the closure of other establishments, notably Paul Clapp, the curing manager, who had spent 20 years at the Royal Wiltshire Bacon Factory in Chippenham.

What ruins mass-produced bacon, Roger says, is haste. The trouble is not that old skills have been forgotten, but that accountants, demanding ever-higher output, force the curing cycle to be carried through far more quickly than it should. Hence the horrible process of multi-needle injection, in which brine is forced into the meat, leaving it saturated with water.

At Sandridge, whole sides of pig are immersed for four or five days in large tanks of brine - a solution of salt and water. The brine is everlasting - that is, it is continually monitored and topped up, but its basis is never changed.

During immersion, useful bacteria invade the meat and begin the curing process, during which the flesh changes colour from light pink to the dark red of true bacon. The speed of chemical reaction depends partly on temperature, and an important element of the process is that the temperature should be maintained constantly between 45 and 50 degrees. As Roger remarks, 'It's a bit like growing mushrooms. Unless you've got the temperature under control, you can't be sure what's happening.'

After their immersion, the sides are stacked in neat piles and left to dry for at least a week. Of course, they take up valuable space, and represent money doing nothing; but the delay is vital. This period of drying, airing and consolidation is just what mass-produced bacon does not get, and it makes all the difference.

At the end of 10 days or a fortnight, the green bacon is ready for dispatch to butchers, or for smoking. As Roger remarks, the term 'green', meaning unsmoked, is both unfortunate and fortunate: on the one hand, it carries a suggestion of mould and decay, and on the other, something healthy and sound environmentally.

The sides to be smoked spend two days in a black chamber, with hardwood sawdust - mainly oak and beech - smouldering on the floor. This process of cold-smoking does not cook the meat, but gives it a delicious flavour, and afterwards the sides hang for two further days, settling down. Only then, after nearly three weeks of treatment, is smoked bacon ready for sale.

Of equal interest to connoisseurs is the fact that the Keens have resurrected several ancient methods of curing hams. When a clear-out in the house turned up a book of old recipes, garnered from farmers' wives during the Thirties, Rosemary adapted several, and gave them old-fashioned names taken from an antique map of the county.

That for the ham now known as Brumham, for instance, derives from the recipe for the celebrated Bradenham ham. Originally concocted for a country gentleman, this recipe was bought by the Royal Wiltshire Bacon Factory early this century, and used by it for many years.

During my visit to Sandridge, a batch of Brumham hams was sitting in a tray of wine-dark liquor - and most enticing it looked: a solution of black sugar, black treacle, black pepper and juniper berries, in which the joints rest for six weeks, being turned and basted daily, before they are hung up for six months to mature.

Still more exotic is the brew for the Devyses ham, in which Wadworths' 6X ale is boiled up with black treacle, pepper, juniper berries, herbs and spices, and poured over the meat hot. Again, the curing and maturing process lasts for several months.

So well do the Sandridge products go down that they have become firmly established in Wiltshire and neighbouring counties. The farm itself has a shop, and also operates a mail-order business.

Being at the sharp end of his marketing operation, Roger has (if he will forgive me) a keen view of his customers and their foibles. Although many are still tough enough to face the fact that bacon comes from a pig, there are increasing numbers of squeamish hypocrites who would rather not think about the origin of what they are eating.

'I've had women ring up nervous about the form their meat's going to arrive in,' he says. 'They don't want any bone in it, or anything to remind them that it came from an animal. That's why most people prefer to go to a supermarket and buy their meat in a white box.' Even country butchers, he reckons, are 'cottoning on to the fact that people don't like to see whole lambs hung up in the shop'.

His own family's eating habits are predictably robust. He points out with relish that his father lived to the age of 92, having never stinted himself on fat, red meat, salt, sugar or any of the other substances that are supposed to finish one off prematurely. 'Eat your fat, boy,' he would order, when the family sat down to a rib of beef - and eat it they all did.

So what of the Sandridge products? Back at home with some samples, I found that they instantly created the most extraordinary time-lapse. The smoked bacon had a flavour and consistency that swept me straight back to days when, as a boy, I used to have high tea with old Harry Brown, the gamekeeper; and my wife, tackling a slice of Chipnam ham, suddenly felt that she, too, was back in childhood, tucking into a picnic on the bank of the River Wye. So clear was the message of the taste that she remembered eating that ham between chunks of fresh white bread.

Such rare delights naturally cost more than run-of-the mill ham and bacon. But surely a premium of 10 or 15 per cent is little enough to pay for immediate transportation to the golden land of one's youth.