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.

I shut-up.

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!)

And WOW.

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.

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.

Ingredients

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 traditional own 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-thickshortback 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.

Method

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 ripetomato (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 orwatercress 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!

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:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/mummifying-alan-egypts-last-secret/4od

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!

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.

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.

Sugar

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

Spices

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.

Method

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 atwww.baconwizard.co.uk (you may need to wait a couple of days for an answer.

B.Wiz J

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.

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