May 18, 2012
It’s been some time since I last wrote, but then a lot has been going on.
Having successfully managed to move back to my home town of Shrewsbury, It’s now my priority to get back into production. This is absolutely the right place. It’s where Maynard himself earned his name, and it’s where I took my first baby steps in curing from one of his student friends. It’s also where my mother lives. Someday, hopefully later rather than sooner, I will need to be a good son.
So. What gives? Well, we have managed to persuade the powers that be to rent us a 1500sqr ft curing facility. It has remote temp control throughout, positive pressure so that dust and flies can’t get in when you open a door, it has an office, a dry room, a chiller, a changing room and is attached to a restaurant, conference room, shop and food consultancy centre. It is, in short, bloody amazing, and we can do amazing things in it.
Perhaps even more exciting though is that we are now VERY close to providing a means of curing at any temperature whatsoever. The idea of cheaply adding something to pork, anywhere in The World at any temperature in order to get a safe, natural, delicious and stable product, is revolutionary. I predict 6 months till launch. The resulting bacon/ham should be fine outside of the fridge too. Best take some with you to the festival/picnic/train journey etc then..
In a similar but more cutting-edge vein, a recent and unexpected email from The States replied to a question I asked 2 years ago! And the answer was a definite maybe. In all likely-hood, there IS a way to cure meat without using ANY additives other than salt and without compromising any of the qualities we have come to love. Samples of the technology in question are being found for me as I type, and I’m told that my rather eccentric use for it is highly likely to work. At what cost, I don’t yet know. But I am now convinced that nitrate-free curing can now work in a meaningful fashion without compromising the quality and tradition of the last few millennia.
After spending 2 ½ years living in a yurt off-grid my hard-earned lesson was that good food, good times and good fortune all depend on good community. So. I meet a guy who happens to be driving my regular taxi. We got on, we chat, we learn about each other as-you-do and we become friends. This is how it goes J
I relate to him how my mind was opened when spending a day in Turin tasting salts of The World, of which some of the best were African. He, “Wilson”, in turn relates to me how his village in Ghana makes the stuff.
A couple of weeks later, I got presented with salt from his village right on the Gold Coast of Ghana, via his always generous and helpful wife (who has red and white spotted socks that make me laugh!)
In my hand were both tiny and enormous crystals. Natural salt, grown and dried under the sun in a lagoon by the people of a minute tribe whose historical gift is this: salt from Mother Nature.
No chemicals. No machines. Just pillars of salt standing like spirits of the lagoon transfixed by golden sun.
The largest, when held up to the light, is opalescent, casting as many colours as the glorious kente-cloth of Ewe tradition; weaving taught to them by a spider, according to the tale.
The smallest crystal, I tasted. And I can tell you that no salt has ever seemed so creamy, nor so long-lasting a flavour.
I don’t know for how long The Ewe (Wilson’s tribe) have harvested salt like this. But the act of building the mineral clay of the lagoon into shallow squares and trapping the salt water for the sun to bake, is likely older than our civilisation. The pillars grow in the sunny season, each one vaguely human in stature and shape. Perhaps in this way the ancestors of us all have risen from those waters to be knocked into pieces, then scattered among us; a source of health and money. If such a piece should ever reach you, savour it. And think what The World would be without salt, or the people that gather it.
March 02, 2012
Bacon Wizard's Perfik Bacon Sarnie
The perfect bacon sandwich is almost as much about texture as flavour. It should have both juiciness and crispness in layers that crack like a Vienetta, flavour exploding in your mouth as they do.
So should the flavours themselves be layered, with top-notes, mid-notes and base notes the way an expensive perfume will have.
For the filling, visit a farm shop or butcher where they make their own bacon. Not by chucking a commercially bought instant cure mix over any old pork, but with their traditionalown mix of rich sugars and Andaman Island spices, salt and saltpetre.
We need 2 slices of smoked streaky, extra thin, and another two of a sweet cure (such as a black bacon, cured with molasses. Finally, 2 rashers of medium-thick shortback bacon that is neither sweet nor smoked. Being a Bacon Wizard, I make my own.
For the bread, a fluffy white sourdough loaf such as “Wild White” from the Hobbs House bakery.
First into a hot pan go the streaky rashers and the slightest drizzle of fruity olive oil to prevent sticking. Once the bacon is opaque and the fat is running nicely I pop these under a fairly low preheated grill to begin crisping up slowly.
Meanwhile, in the now vacant pan, the thicker back bacon can go in. It should be cooked quickly so that the fat bubbles and browns but the lean eye of the rasher remains juicy and tenderonce briefly rested.
I pop the cooked back bacon into a warm place (such as an unlit side of your grill, if you have such a thing) while we finish preparing.
Next, I take the two slices of bread which I like to be half an inch thick and dip just one side in the rendered fat. If there isn’t enough for both slices, a touch more oil will help.Careful not to burn the bread, but allow it to caramelize in the pan till golden brown. If there is not enough room for both pieces, simplydip them in the pan and put them under the same grill with the moistened side upward to go shatteringly crisp on one side but remaining a soft, yielding pillow on the other.
Now to assemble your sandwich :)
If you are a BLT fan, this is where you need to add several types of fully ripe tomato (such as black prince, powers heirloom, and brandy wine) sliced and seasoned with very little salt, freshly dry-fried and ground (in a pestle and mortar) black or long pepper. The ripeness will mean that after the initial crunch, they squish like nature’s own amazing sauce. If the tomatoes you have are not fully ripe, a little sprinkle of sugar is an old Italian trick which works wonders, and season them a good half-hour before use, to let them soften.
For once, chilled iceberg lettuce has a genuine place in the kitchen, but rocket or watercress will help the flavour and texture too.
Place the salad (if you are using any) on one slice of the one-sided toast and top with the bacon in two layers, alternating the different rashers left to right and then in reverse.
Cut into half and serve immediately. Watch your guests roll their eyes heavenward and melt on the spot, exclaiming without pause in the munching.
What am I saying? Eat it yourself!
November 22, 2011
Those of us who are in the UK recently had the opportunity to watch Channel 4’s Mummifying Alan, a program in which an chemist in the Archaeology Dept of Manchester University was finally able to test his theory of how the very best Egyptian mummies were preserved.
This he did with the donated body of cancer victim Alan who has been in some fashion made immortal by the processes of mummification and arguably by filming.
Anyone who missed this amazing program can catch up over the next couple of weeks here:
In the meantime, it opens up possibilities for a certain wizard who lives to preserve pigs.
The vital ingredient was “natron” or Egyptian salt. This differs from ordinary salt by containing much sodium carbonate decahydrate, and sodium bicarbonate, as well as trace nitrites.
Well now. The former chemical is pretty nasty, but bicarb as we call it in the UK is common in baking as a rising agent when mixed with acid.
Could we all be missing a trick when we have a convenient alkali for sterilizing meat? This reverses most of what I know of curing, which tends to be slightly acidic.
Bicarb is also used in Chinese cookery to tenderise meat, but salt and saltpetre are renowned for toughening protein. Perhaps there’s a balance to be found.
Meanwhile, Alan (RIP) was also treated to a makeover of beeswax and sesame oil which combination was to protect any vital parts (skin especially) from the strong natron brine.
I am already envisioning a ham with a honeycomb and sesame-oil rub! And to stop any nasty holes which can attract flies (such as where the femoral artery opens-out in a whole ham) they used pine-resin which I know to be both edible (retsina anyone?) and antibacterial.
Lastly, the bandaging and dehydration of Alan’s donated body was a beautiful and extreme example of the care we should take when wrapping our hams in muslin cloth and air-drying.
Experiments will follow on my part, and I will as always keep you informed via facebook,
and the forum.
Meanwhile, Alan remains in a lab for study, but his wish was to eventually rest in a museum.
If this happens, I plan to visit him and “commune” how delicious his eternal legacy and that of Dr Buckley happens to be. And while you dear reader will not thank me for this, he would have enjoyed being accused of ham-acting.
September 24, 2011
It was pointed out to me that while I am firmly located in the UK, the interweb is not. Many of my Facebook friends are States-side and so is much of the latest research into curing science, which I am constantly reading. (University of Utah seems to do tons!)
So anyway, here is a basic recipe and rules of thumb to get you started but converted into USA measures, which are the same as our old Imperial measures for our purposes (it all goes wrong when you start dealing in hundred-weights or more)
This is for bacon, and NOT ham.
The salt can be varied up or down very slightly as you learn your own tastes, and the sugar can be varied quite a lot, or replaced with different kinds of sugar: Muscovado for example. The following is the basic formula which is safe and aught to produce a good result even though you’ve never done it before.
Prague powder 1 is salt with 6.25% sodium nitrite. Prague Powder 2 is the same but also contains saltpetre which will more slowly become sodium nitrite as the meat matures... you want this to happen if you are maturing the meat, but it’s probably best avoided if you plan to eat the product as soon as you can. Prague powder is pink for safety reasons (so you don’t use it as table salt!) and is available in the USA over the internet.
For 1 lb pork
Salt and Prague Powder
To 1 lb of pork (in this case, belly or back) you will need 0.38 oz of prague powder and top it up with 0.2 oz ordinary salt. 0.1 oz salt would be very mild and 0.3 oz salt would be pretty salty especially if you plan to air-dry it. Keep the prague powder constant in all cases.
0.25 oz Demerara sugar tends to be about right, especially to begin with. If you want to use a liquid sugar such as treacle (molasses) then assume 50% of its weight is water. I.e. use twice the weight as this recipe says for a similar sweetness. It is best drizzled on after the salt in this case. It will spread itself soon enough J
Start with dried, powdered spice, taking very great care of anything super-strong such as cloves or juniper berry. To start with, use a maximum of 0.2 oz of spices IN TOTAL. Once you’ve a feel for it, you can start to increase the levels if you wish.
Basic conversion of dried herbs and spices to fresh is that you should treble the weight if using fresh.
If you can be bothered, the best method is to start with whole spices and gently toast them in an un-oiled pan over a medium heat to release the oils before grinding them by hand in a pestle and mortar.
If you find a recipe you love and will want to use again, you can pre-mix it and store it in a sealed air-tight container away from sunlight. Simply weigh the amount that the total ingredients per XXX of pork for the piece that you are intending to cure. When using a pre-made cure like this, ensure the ingredients are well mixed.. and I do mean MIXED, not shaken (shaking will cause different sizes of particle to rise/fall in relation to each other, and they’ll separate rather than mix.
Apply 10% of your mixed cure to the skin-side of the pork even if the skin has been removed. This side should always be face-down while curing. Apply the rest evenly to the pork being sure to rub it into any cuts, holes etc.
You can wrap this tightly in plastic wrap if your fridge has other ingredients that will taint the flavour (or be tainted by it) or just in a sealed tub that isn’t much bigger than the piece of pork will do fine.
Allow 5 full days for belly, or 7 days for back bacon.
If intending to do several pieces at the same time, they can be stacked on top of each other. In this case, they should be re-stacked so that the bottom piece becomes the top one, and vice-versa. Do this half-way through the total curing time.
Slightly more advanced.
The above method is a convenient way that works well in big industry or in the bottom of your home fridge.
However, whilst this is technically a dry cure, it is still very wet. A true dry cure allows the pork juices to run away from the meat as the salt draws it out.
You will need something upon which to place the pork (a plastic chopping board for example) which can be raised at one end only so that it is on a very slight slope. OR place some wooden or plastic batons in the bottom of the tub to raise the pork up of the bottom so that it is lifted clear of the juices that form.
Having practiced the above method a few times, you will have begun to get your eye-in and be able to judge how much salt/spice mix to put on the pork.
For this method, the trick is to apply a similar but greater amount. Er on the side of too much. It is often better to use larger grains of salt which allow the juices to drain between them. We rely not so much on the exact amount of salt being applied (but you always want enough to be present while not wasting it) but instead we know the correct amount of time in which to cure and in which the salt will penetrate the meat.
It is therefore crucial that the pork is turned at the right time (if stacking several on top of each other) and that they are removed from the cure at the right time as given above.
Good luck, and if you are uncertain, post a question up on my forum at www.baconwizard.co.uk (you may need to wait a couple of days for an answer.
As some of you will know, I’ve had this thing for a while now that the natural processes which maintain a healthy body (be it porcine or human) do not immediately cease their usefulness upon death. In fact, the same vitamins, antioxidants, enzymatic processes, probiotic bugs etc, are invaluable for great curing.
This sometimes leads me to look in unusual places for inspiration. Small wonder then, that the wizardly whiskers were a-tingling with curiosity about Bath Spa.
The naturally hot spring at Bath is the only one of its kind in The Uk. It is best known as the site of a sacred roman temple and baths, but its history goes back much further. Any chef knows that food can only be as good as the ingredients. Water, is one such vital curer’s mainstay, often forgotten.
Legend has it, that one of Ancient Britain’s princes, named Bladud, was cast out as a leper and became a swine herd.
He began to take his pigs down to the mysterious land around the spring for foraging, mud, and to drink. He noticed after a while that his pigs were blessed with extremely good health and wondered if he too would benefit from whatever sacred forces looked kindly upon this place. He went to the source of the waters and bathed in them. And so was cured of his leprosy, able to return to his people as king.
Well I too went to the source of the spring today, and spent an hour walking round the rather excellent visitor centre. I drank some of the water too, which I found to be delicious. I had to go and pester someone who had better things to do that talk to some bacon-nutter, to find out what is actually in the water. So here it is:
The water is rich in sulphates, used today as a preservative and antibacterial, especially in fruit and wine. Next on the list is calcium from the rich limestone rock through which it has been steam-driven. I know that hard water is traditionally considered superior for Wiltshire curing (wet curing with a live brine)
So too are sodium and chloride (ie, salt) present in small but appreciable amounts: you can just about taste it.
There’s some bicarbonate, another useful tool in the preserver’s arsenal, a little magnesium and is fortified with enough iron to colour the stones.
All in all, I reckon a brine made from the waters of this very special site would be pretty damn good. It does also seem to be genuinely good for you both internally and for the skin.
So would the water preserve pork on its own, given a chance?
Nope, ‘fraid not. I am going to write to the appropriate authority and see if I can do a small project there for the sake of interest. But I’m sorry to say that had any of Prince Bladud’s pigs drowned by chance, they would not have handily emerged as self-made bacon or ham. Just very healthy (if you can call dead, healthy) clean pork.
Still, you can’t underestimate the importance of the different waters around the world. Brewers across all the UK religiously add gypsum and other minerals to copy the water of Burton (on Trent) the natural home of our rich brewing history. Maybe Aqua Sulis’s first encounter with pigs still points the way for me. I’ll let you know, of course.
April 30, 2011
As you can imagine, I spend quite a lot of time looking at old books; that’s what wizards do, after all.
It seems that I’m not the only one. Recently, John and Charlotte (owners of the amazing Mangaliza pigs) lent me “Handy Guide for Pork Butchers” first published in 1905 and like many of its contemporaries there are multitudes of dry-cure and brine recipes for bacon, ham, brawn, salt beef, sausages and so on.
In many cases, the salt and saltpetre levels are both very high for today’s standards. I mean this both in legal terms and for our modern tastes. Our palates have changed much in the last 100 years, and there is less emphasis on the need to preserve food for leaner times.
Still, there’s a lot to be learned from these recipes. I thought I was being my wizardly self when I realised that what sustains pork in life (ie, the blood) would therefore provide all the vitamins, enzymes, sugars and trace elements that would make a brine really very special. Until I found a 1916 recipe that requires the addition of a quart of blood.
Anyway, I digress. There are one or two terms that are often used in such recipes, and the meanings are becoming obscure. So to assist, here are some of them translated.
Bay Salt. This is not salt with bayleaf powder. It is salt from the bay of a sea. In other words it is natural, unrefined sea-salt in large crystals. The size of crystal makes a big difference in dry curing, and the flavour makes a large differing in dry curing, a subtle one in a brine.
Kosher salt. There is nothing non-kosher about salt of any sort. Again, it is the size of crystal that counts. Kosher salt (salt for koshering) is generally a large grain of crystal similar to that you would put in your salt grinder for the table. It need not be rock salt, but might be.
Saltpetre. Potassium Nitrate, still much in use today although almost never without sodium nitrite along side. For commercial purposes, a mximum of 250mg/kilo of pork is permitted. You can use original recipes at home without ill effect providing you do not have an allergy and I recommend keeping it away from very young children who’s metabolism is not developed to use nitrate (unlike an older child-adult which has specific strategies to utilise nitrates)
Sal prunella. Our forefathers thought they were purifying saltpetre when they made this. The process involved mixing high-grade charcoal and saltpetre together, heating in a kiln and pouring the result into moulds to create briquettes of Sal Prunella. Actually, this is calcium carbonate (the thing which makes water hard, and apparently makes a brine better!) and potassium nitrite: the very thing (along with sodium nitrite, which does the same thing) which modern curers use.
Molasses and sugar. Ok, you know what those are. But a word of warning. They ALWAYS mean from sugar cane, and not from sugar-beat. It makes no difference in a dry cure, but you’ll start to see some differences in a brine that you boil regularly.
So that’s a helpful start, I hope. But if you encounter anything else that has you stumped, don’t forget to post on our forum: If I can’t help, I probably know someone who can J
Jasper aka BWiz
March 18, 2011
I’d been promising my friends John and Charlotte that I’d pop-over to see their Mangaliza pigs for ages. Somehow I’d always been a bit too busy with other things. As damn cool a woolly pig might be, business comes first, no? John explains that it was indeed as the next “It Pig” that these were first imported to the country at £1000 each. The price has gone down since then, and much more understanding of the animal exists. John has certainly done his bit to help.
So I finally made time to indulge myself and go to see the fuzzies in question. I was in for a shock.
Firstly, the cuteness I had imagined was tenfold in the flesh. While they can mature to an enormous size, they are slow growing. So that a 6-month old Mangaliza (the age at which most pigs find themselves divided into separate polystyrene trays on the supermarket shelf) is an endearingly tubby ball of fluffy, energetic youngster. They are puppy-like in their attitude. Yet among the hardiest of all pigs: quite capable of giving birth in deep snow and with all piglets surviving while mum forages for food, away from human intervention or help. That goes for 2 litters per year at least.
Their slow maturing rate would give most farmers today an apoplexy, but with these pigs you get great wool too, a hugely important difference from other pigs which are “single-use” And they just. Keep. Going.
Despite the blond variant of the Mangaliza (there are three colours, each with their own physiological traits) having a tendency to run to fat easily, they are quite capable of jumping the 4-ft fence if they so wish. You just know that a rotund, fluffy, athletic pig aught to taste as good as it looks. It looks awesome.
It’s not the grin-inducing furriness that interests me, even though the coat is at certain times of the year, softer and warmer than sheep’s wool. No, this creature provided the preferred meat for the Viennese Court. A position not achieved by pulling wool over the eyes (sorry) of the overly fashion conscious. The pork is genuinely special. Very.
It turns out that a Mangaliza pig’s fat is richer in omega3 than fish oil. Incredible! It is also rich in monounsaturated fat and oleic acid: the healthy stuffs which olive oil is famous-for but is comparatively less rich-in. In pig terms, these traits were thought unique to the World-beating Iberico pig, from The South of Spain.
In the latter, much of this is achieved with a pure diet of acorns. The Mangaliza is even more inclined this way, but John is nevertheless looking for a way to feed his pigs something nice to help. I wish he were on the continent, where spent olives from organic oil-pressing would do the trick. That has been has been my retirement plan for some time. Having ascertained the right place for feedstuff and curing conditions, this is clearly the pig of choice!
On a piece of bacon, it is possible to encounter 4 inches of fat. And yet, this fat is genuinely GOOD for you. By Christ it tastes amazing!
Charlotte and John are passionate about breeding. Aren’t we all? But the Mangaliza suffers from a tiny gene-pool. Firstly, most of the existing animals are descended from a single herd. They are a Hungarian pig, and communist rule resulted in an order to slay them all. One brave soul sent ordinary pigs to the slaughter-house in place of his beloved Mangalizas, where the correct number of pigs were ticked-off and nothing more said. When communism collapsed, it was revealed that he had, somehow, kept his herd alive in the mountains. They probably took care of themselves, bless ‘em. They can do that.
Unfortunately, this now means that pig breeders often find that the only good boar available happens to be the grandfather of their own females. Not ideal.
Furthermore, there are three distinct varieties of Mangaliza: Blonde, Swallow-bellied and Red. The Swallow-bellied (originally produced by crossing the Blonde Mangaliza with the extinct Black Mangaliza) has a blonde belly and feet with a black body, and the red (produced by crossing the Blonde Mangaliza with the Szalonta breed) is ginger.
Short of options, “most people” (there aren’t enough people involved to talk about “most”) just cross these closely related strains. But this is the worst thing you could do: they have VERY common ancestors, and each separate characteristic was created by those traits brought in by cross-breeding with another pig. This genetic strength is nullified if you re-integrate the three varieties, John explains.
I suspect they are something of a genius when it comes to these things. These guys see traits and ancestral lines like I see patterns in the relationship between curing ingredients and histories.
So we are going to get our heads and hearts together. The very finest hams on this planet really COULD come from a little place just a few miles away from my beloved yurt up in the Wiltshire Downs.
I had absolutely NO idea! Neither does anyone else, yet. All I know is that in a quiet but determined way John and Charlotte are extraordinary people. They have, due to their passions and talents, the ur-pig. I want-in! And have waiting in the wings, the ur-cure, I think.
Deep Breath. Here goes…..
February 18, 2011
The UK is a funny old stick, don’t you think? Some of us are fiercely proud of our history and national heritage. Others are apologetic or just plan apathetic.
In my experience, one of the most defining factors of a culture, is its food. English food is a hotly debated subject. Again, there is much to be proud of. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a great steak and kidney pudding, no Sir! And once upon a time it would have contained rich oysters to boot.
I have a pet theory that English food has suffered constant influxes of outside influence from on-high, historically. Food trends came from courtly practice and filtered downwards. Certainly eating-out was not something the unlanded peasantry could ever do, until today. And some courtly ideas were.. well, stupid. A great deal was to do with using the most expensive, most colourful, most showboating ingredients and recipes. The more ostentatious the better, and bugger the flavour. Even today, chicken breast is more costly than the brown meat, and a “prime” cut. WHY? It has half the flavour and more likely a dry texture too if it hadn’t been pumped with water. Oh but silly me, it has no bones. So much better for not reminding us that we are eating a creature and are responsible for not only its death, but how it lived.
The true, enduring British classics are genuinely great. “Fish and chips!” someone shouted at me in the streets of Jerusalem, on learning I was from the UK. And likewise the French, whose charcuterie is not matched often over here, call us “Bif-Steak”
I tell you what, proper fish and chips is hard to beat. The trouble is finding one! I suspect that unlike us, our continental brethren have maintained a connection with their food from the ground-up, literally. Even in the USA, there are parts in The South where BBQing is a true art-from, to a level that is unseen elsewhere. We just burn sausages!
Some people take up the cry of “buy local” or “get some chickens and an allotment” or to railing in-vain against supermarket culture. This latter has been especially influential for The Brits, ever since WW2 rationing hit our nation so very hard. The knowledge and desire to change this are still firmly within the confines of The City, and The Middle Class however.
Even now, while food plays such a large part in the media, actually making decent grub, is posh.
Most people who actually work on the land or with food that is produced en-masse, have no interest in engaging with the arguments for or against the emerging alternatives. They are led by short-term economics alone, and I don’t really blame them. Good food is expensive at the moment. And that is absolutely a problem, because the crap food that’s out there MUST be costing us more, actually. It defies the laws of physics otherwise. I don’t need to hope that this will change, because there’s no choice.
What I do see though, is a mixed message from the Hugh Fernleys and Jamie Olivers of this world. Large producers are lambasted for including Mechanically Reclaimed Meat, or using heart in their “steak” pies. Oh how disgusting!
Yet an expensive restaurant in London serving bone-marrow on toast gets the thumbs up? A classic French Civet sauce for duck when done the long way, requires crushing the bones of the duck carcass to extract rich juices, marrow and other flavourful bits. It always has done. Come, now, we’ve always known that using the whole animal is the only economically viable way to survive as a business. Or as a family.
Nose to tail eating is essential. There’s nothing horrid about non-prime cuts. What’s horrible is the industrial processes that even the living animals are subjected to, contrary to their health, and ours. Same goes for the levels of preservatives, colouring, packaging, transport, advertising of huge brands, etc. All of which we pay for.
So actually, getting to grips with the idea that a bit of liver ISN’T horrid, is what means the consumer bypasses all of that to their own financial benefit and health. And so we return to charcuterie, that missing link in British Food.
Curing, is a huge part of this struggling movement. And to survive, it will need to jump out of the coffee-table book, out of the obsessed hobbyist’s garden shed, and into our small butchers, non-premium suppliers and everyday pubs.
The whole POINT of curing, is that it makes economic sense. It prevents waste, extends shelf-life, is high in flavour (or should be!) so that you can use less to make more money, and is easy to do. Far easier than making a good pate, actually.
Besides, notwithstanding genuine British dishes like Chicken Tikka Marsala, what food really defines us as a nation, if not bacon, ham and sausages? We should be the best in The World at this stuff, and we should purchase accordingly, say I.
February 06, 2011
A Cure for all Ills.
For those of us who either choose to avoid certain substances or more seriously those who have no choice about it, bacon presents a serious dilemma. On one hand it is the epitome of crisp, juicy, salty deliciousness and demonstrates the 5th taste, umami, admirably.
It achieves apparent godhead in food-form with a series of age-old tricks such as bacterial fermentation. However, a great deal of the sensation is the combination of delicious pork-fat, very lean meat, salt and sometimes sugar. The rest is taken-care of by a transformation which takes place cheese-style and has similar effects. Whereas cheese bacteria eat lactic acid, bacon or ham bacteria require saltpetre, unromantically called potassium nitrate today. For reliability and better products, curers since the 1750s have also used nitrite, which is considerably more powerful.
So how does one survive if you are allergic or intolerant to nitrates and nitrites? How about those salt levels? And most bacon uses sugar too. Indeed, supermarket versions of this very often also use polyphosphates which help retain the injected water for which you pay.
It is possible to get bacon which has been made without saltpetre or nitrites. I rather like Laverstoke Park’s version. It will have a grey colour that echoes cooked-pork, but with plenty salt and smoke it can taste enough like bacon not to matter. Simply replacing your bacon with one of these, and dropping spinach, celery, leek and other (very) high nitrate foods is your first step. But please DO be careful. Because things like celery have vastly more nitrate than is found in bacon, it is also possible to use these things as a “flavour”. It’s a great way of getting large amounts of nitrate into the recipe undetected and undeclared. Of course many people suffer an allergy to celery too.
So if celery or spinach is listed anywhere in the ingredients, avoid it. In fact, if the bacon is pink when cooked, believe me, nitrates were used whether they appear on the label or not.
The trouble is that non-nitrate bacon can be very salty. Not only is more salt required to preserve the pork, but when saltpetre is used, the fermentation that occurs actually reduces the salt levels (but not sodium) somewhat. So the question needs to be asked, can low-sodium alternatives be used?
The answer is yes, and I don’t understand why manufacturers aren’t using it. I have just returned from a research trip to The Dead Sea, the natural salts of which include calcium chloride, potassium chloride and ordinary sodium chloride.
The flavour at full strength is not wonderful. But actually like many strong things you begin to find interesting (good) flavour notes when diluted. Well, the amount that goes into bacon is small enough that those flavours actually work rather well, and have been used in curing meat for many millennia. Another thing we are all missing today is that very traditional cures call for large grains of salt. These dry-out the meat more than they are sucked-in, so your bacon is less salty. I have yet to see large crystals of low-sodium salt but there’s no reason why they can’t be made. You could try growing a crystal garden like I had as a kid using low-sodium salt.
So anyway, let me give you a simple recipe to try at home. It’s very easy and makes use of some traditional ideas. I am using fruit sugar: low glycemic index and 1/3 sweeter than table sugar meaning that you can use less.
Simply take 1k fresh belly pork.
30g low sodium salt
10 fruit sugar (you could use 20g honey or pure date syrup instead)
2g nutmeg (optional)
2g ground white pepper (optional)
1g cinnamon (optional)
1/2g cloves (optional)
Rub the mix thoroughly into the pork, especially any gap or where the butcher’s knife may have scored the flesh. Most of the rub should be on the meat side, not the skin/fat side.
Wrap it extremely well in Clingfilm and put it skin-side down in the bottom of your fridge (which should be no colder than 2degC) on a plate or something that might catch any escaping juices!
Leave it there for 1 week and then wash it off carefully. It benefits from being left to air-dry a little in a cool breeze overnight but is essentially ready and also freezes extremely well indeed.
Most of us don’t own a cold-smoker, but if you get the chance to smoke it, do!
What you have is not only free-from nitrates or high sodium levels but pretty damn good and traditional too. So what’s not to like?
February 04, 2011
A cure out of Eden.
As a bacon curer, most people were more than a little curious as to why I would be heading to a country and region famous for its lack of pork. Actually, I visited Kibbutz Lahav which like most, is secular. They have thousands of well-treated pigs for “scientific research” most of which seems to take the form of sausages.
Of course all curing interests me deeply, not just bacon or ham. But few people realise that between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago when the very first people to farm this Earth arrived in the region, their first and natural domesticate other than the dog, was the pig.
As well as the first agriculture known to our species, and the epicentre for that practice throughout The Western World, the importance of the region lies in its salt-rich waters and cliffs. We forget in modernity that salt of any kind is vital for life, was as difficult to find and as valuable as gold. Its ability to immortalise our bodies and souls, preserve and enhance food, or to maintain health among people and livestock made it so.
In curing terms, the earliest records we have all point to the region. Rome used to import several different kinds of salt from The Dead Sea area, a practice pointed to them by The Ancient Greeks and vended by The Israelites of the day. The ancient rabbinic laws that define “Kosher” had been in place for some time and the drawing of blood from meat by means of salt was so important culturally, as to almost define the people as being “of salt”
Somewhere between this first ever opportunity to cure as we know it and the earliest actual records, it happened. Surely, it must have happened here?
If so, how?
Even “the other” theory, that Ancient Gauls first taught Romans the art of curing hams by burying them (the hams, not The Romans!) under the tide-line until saturated with brine, and perhaps nitrates from seaweed upon the shingles and sands. We now know that farming practices did not spread as a copied technology but arrived with The Beaker People, a culture from the very same Fertile Crescent where The Dead Sea lies and close ancestors to The Celts and Gauls.
We will probably never know if those first humans ever discovered this technology. I can tell you that The Dead Sea at the time was far from dead, being about half as salty as it remains today and of a slightly different nature. The salts found today include the very metallic and bitter Magnesium Chloride and Potassium Chloride. Both are edible and in fact so vital to health that they can be found in baby formula, but I assure you that nobody would ever use Dead Sea water as we now know it to cure with. Yuck!
Catering for a much higher tolerance for bitter flavours in our ancestors, and that the gentler Calcium Chloride and Sodium chloride (table salt!) were more prevalent at the time, it is not beyond possibility that a good dunking of meat in the waters might have been a great idea. Especially if preserving the meat is more important than the taste (and it can always be soaked in fresh water later to remove the salt before cooking) Even modern Dead Sea water is more palatable at 15% salinity as I have discovered for myself. I won’t be wheeling it out at a dinner party anytime soon, though.
Another possibility which I think much more likely, occurs later at around 8,000 BC. By this time, true agriculture (which forces one to either take pig-farming seriously or drop the idea completely: they like to eat your crops and are good at escaping!) was in full swing and The Dead Sea was beginning to shrink and thus get more concentrated. It was also changing, losing its calcium and gaining the bitter salts that rule now. What this means though, is that Mount Sodom in modern-day Israel would have been accessible.
Mount Sodom is almost pure salt. There’s gypsum which is used in the UK’s brewing industry and which vastly improves a Wiltshire Brine (I don’t yet know why. But I trust the “Old Boy” who was enthusiastically trading tricks of the trade with me last year, and that’s what he says) There’s also Potassium Chloride which is used today as a low-sodium salt alternative for the table. It isn’t as nice, but its ok and I’ve cured some good stuff with it. The rest is pure sea-salt; millions of tons of it as a huge cliff in which run networks of caves.
In the increasingly hot climate from this time onward, these caves provided and still do provide people with cooling relief from the mid-day sun. Convective breezes refresh the air inside. I can well imagine people visiting regularly, and storing food there. Even as I write, there is a piece of beef resting in one such cave where I put it and a kibbutznik friend is going to retrieve it later. We’ll see if the surrounding salt walls and cool breeze have preserved it. I’m not sure if he’s going to risk actually eating the results!
Again, there is no evidence of such a practice. But if it happened, there’s a good chance that some food remains will be found if anyone were to look seriously. This might be a good excuse for a holiday next year.
Here’s what I absolutely DO know, though. Fast forward to the days of The Roman Empire. Not only were ship-loads of grey gypsum-laden rock salt quarried from Mount Sodom, but another curious salt went the same route. This was something that Jewish People had been tending for a couple of thousand years BC at least and which took place at the foot of Mount Sodom: Fresh rainwater can be irrigated or falls naturally to purify salt from the ground in shallow pools.
To do so, like growing a crystal garden like the one I had as a child, something must be cast into the shallow waters on which it can grow slowly and beautifully. This was in the form of a triangle of wooden sticks, over which was bound a second triangle facing the other way. King Solomon is credited with giving the people of his son, David, this shape to use.
Curiously, these pools were bright scarlet red. As an eye witness account from the period says, it looked like blood, and tasted like it too. I don’t make a point of tasting blood, I promise. But I HAVE used it for curing-with in experiments (it contains ALL the right stuff! Vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, salts, sugars and flavour) and the result was glorious.
What could this redness be from? Iron?
Actually, the “Dead” Sea isn’t. Dead, I mean.
Just about the ONLY thing that can live in it, is one of the oldest kinds of life we know-of. If you look to the intro of my book (which I started last year) I mention archaea, so called because they are truly arcane. They pre-date bacteria and lacking oxygen or sunlight, evolved to thrive in what our variety of life would find intolerable conditions of acidity, darkness, heat, cold, toxicity or.. salt. These feed upon an algae when the waters are diluted by floodwater and the algae is prettily named Dunaliella Salina. Between these both, the water turns bright red and the flavour is not unpleasant. In curing terms, what seems to me more than a little coincidental is that I have been preaching for some time that saltpetre (potassium nitrate) must have been in use for curing long before we ever knew we were using it (although in china it is entirely possible that they knew exactly what they were doing)
In among the fresh water-gathering pools on salt rock, nutrients and saltpetre (or nitrate) gather. Indeed, the old fort up at Ein Bokek just a few miles north along the “coast” made excellent saltpetre for thousands of years, and I even managed to scrape a little up from the rubble of it as I hitched back to Jerusalem.
Dunaliella Salina, LOVES nitrates. It devours them with gusto that almost matches my appetite for bacon. And that process of breaking down nitrate is exactly how bacon curing works in every single butchery, kitchen or factory even today ever since archaea and other bacteria adapted to live in and on us or our livestock. While forming an immune defence for their host or our lands, some also can eat nitrates and so produce the things that cure and flavour meat. This action leads to the cooked product remaining pink. Something that The Romans were aware of.
If you are a Bacon Wizard, this is exciting. A live curing brine from The Garden of Eden.
I now have a tank in my experimental butchery which is 15% salt of the right kinds and has constant daylight, plus a little oxygen. After depositing my smuggled samples into it last night, I am feeding it with saltpetre. I’m waiting for a rosy tint to show itself and later, mats of scarlet slime.
It’s ironic that this special, mysterious and ancient beyond words life-form might have given its magical properties to The World’s first and best curing salt, tended by Jewish or pre-Israelite people for whom salt is synonymous with all that is good and honest.
While Dunaliella Salina now provides antioxidant protection in cosmetics and may one day feed our entire livestock quickly and economically, she is forgotten as the Queen of Curing. Besides, the use of living creatures in say, cheese making, is a practice you won’t find in Israel today. It just isn’t Kosher.
Nevermind Dunaliella. I still love you. Please, cure me some bacon.