With antennae upon antennae placed upon tin shacks, the cracked, eroded red soil, and fishless metallic waters, this could easily be a colony on Mars. Only unfamiliar birdsong tells me different until the rude passing of a tour-bus. 

On reaching the beaches, I am disappointed to find litter in this strange ancient place. Glittering breakwaters caress incoming sand, rock and detritus. There is a lazy scouring of each other to form stripy layers of salt-laden clay. Nothing lasts. Even the boulders form the nucleus for a halite bombe, which will be re-broken and polished again and again into paste. Where fiberous plant-life has left its structure, crystals criss-cross and grow upon each other like some kind of weird moss. 

The water is thick and oily with salts, including that of sharp potassium. So dense is it, that even a tiny drop upon the tongue draws your entire conciousness. It isn’t merely salty. I can feel precious life leaving through my mouth, gripped as if by an electric current. I imagine weary travellers, who, having barely survived the journey here might collapse gratefully into the water’s embrace, head first. Such an unwary person might never emerge, albeit sinking is impossible. I have the benefit of millennia’s hindsight though, and wade gently to have my chef’s burns caressed and cleaned. It feels wonderful, and I could lose myself.

Where pools or rivulets of fresh water collect from the uplands, some plant-life clings. They meet the slivery foam, and from these struggle a bright green or turquoise algae. They darken and fall into pool bottoms as a dead mat. In other shallow bowls, ice-like shards of salt are pinkened underneath. This is the arcane flower of the Dead Sea, which can turn it red as spring melt-waters bring nutrients and fresh relief to the surface: a strange form of life, seemingly alien to our world. But life it is, and as old as life itself.

On January the 14th I set-out for The Dead Sea in Israel. Apart from a well-earned holiday, it was my intention to experience the place where some of the first recorded agriculture in the history of mankind exists. Despite the water’s dead reputation, fresh water seeps or floods through deep gulleys in the Judean dessert to create a narrow band of fertile and usable land, and the valuable resource of salt can be collected by hand. 

The first inhabitants of the area are known to have kept pigs as well as growing vegetable crops, hunting for deer and trading among each other. Long before they even had pottery, evidence of their ingenuity includes the invention of glue.

 

I wanted to experience the unique salt waters for myself, the historical use of salts from the area for curing, and any other curing mechanisms that might date-back to before records begin. I kept a journal of my brief travels along with technical notes, as I sought the basis for a cure out of The Garden of Eden. Here are some of my observations.

 

Day 1

 

Apparently built of the same stone upon which they are founded, structures both modern and biblically old appear either to grow out of the landscape like worn teeth in a sun-bleached sheep’s jaw, or to be the cracked and crumbling remains of the geography itself. 

The landscape has the look of having had done to it, everything that can be. As our little “sherut” shuttle-bus speeds us from Ben Gurion and along dual carriageway side-cuttings, one friendly passenger begins to act as tour-guide and explains that both this and the alternative road to Jerusalem are Roman. To me the road signs, signals and bollards seem tacked-on and tin-pot, even though they are at least as well made and efficient as our own. I bet the road looked identical 2000 years ago, were it not for these. There seems to be a habit in Israel of building a new road right next to the existing one, either to cope with more and more travellers, or before the original is consigned to dust. Modern civil engineering can do little to alter the hard facts of forcing infrastructure upon bare, ancient rock.

With their brightly patterned blankets, corrugated iron and scavenged wooden lean-tos, I don’t suppose the roadside dwellers of the Judean dessert live much differently from their ancestors either. Excellent mobile phone coverage does not a Mecca make. They are all Arab.

 

There is an odd duality to life here, given that I don’t understand the language and so cannot decipher any subtle nuances in how people treat each other. On one obvious hand, the savagely chewed West Bank is panoramic from our lofty trail, the rest of Israel literally looking down upon it as they pass by in Mercedes or Toyota 4 x 4s. Even ordinary police vehicles here are decked in military green and have a capable, utilitarian look about them as do their machine-gun toting occupants. The latter are remarkably relaxed however and I do not feel threatened.

At the same time, Israel does not seem like a county at war with itself. Street markets in Jerusalem are open daily rather than weekly and the mix of Arab and often secular Jew is a bubbling, stress-free maelstrom of Middle Eastern culture and dress.

Nobody seems to mind anybody else amid fast exchange of conversation and business deals. I call into an Armenian bakery where men quietly nod even as people crowd the counter, passing shekels and seriously (and dear reader, I do mean seriously) good bread. The Marlborough red never leaves his mouth, left eye half closed against the smoke. I call next door for some delicious hummus, and a diet coke. 

Mobile phone kiosks rub shoulders with traditional sweet pastry and coffee shops, spice and tea bazaars, western clothing stalls, fishmongers, street-food, grocers with cabbages the size of medicine balls and jet-black knobbly aubergines. Olives and pickles can be bought, alongside garishly dyed florets of cooked cauliflower, those too of gargantuan proportions. There are butchers with half sheep, goats or hind-quarters of beef (young and pale by our standards) all hanging, some without refrigeration, but selling rapidly enough not to matter. And of course there are bakers with their huge mechanised mixing bowls and ceiling-high stacks of speckled eggs.

 

I am merely passing through however, on my way to The Dead Sea. It is Shabbat, a day of rest in the weekly calendar here, so public transport is a problem. Indeed, without my own car, living outside the major cities is not easy anyway; there are huge distances between one amenity and another. 

Like many, my driver does not understand the attraction, especially outside the tourist season. And I am beginning to agree. After a spate of lonely looking pottery sellers and camels we pass a checkpoint, hardly slowing down. Then we head to the lowest point on Earth.

Jordan is barely separated by the saline waters, unending road stretches before us. It is punctuated only by occasional newly razed oasis of irrigated date-palms, small but World-conquering enterprises based upon dead-sea products, and the kibbutzes they serve. Only a single hotel resort to the south rises-up in the distance. It is isolated and expensive. To our right, is the Judean desert. It is hard to believe that we are in The Levant, a place where humanity first paused on its several migrations out of Africa to become farmers and feasters upon the fertile crescent. Strangely, this is perhaps the historical location of The Garden of Eden.

 

The erosion of those clifftops is of epic proportions. When I arrived I was warned that it might rain over the weekend, and that the parched ground closes-up rapidly, causing flash floods. Huge waterfalls, dry for now, can be seen from far below. Nobody wants to be under it when the floods arrive. In spite of these regular cascades dropping into the chasm which holds us, the sea itself is shrinking so fast that we are driving on where it used to be just 30 years ago. Perhaps this is the result of exploitation, or just evaporation. Either way, the effect upon me is that someone has pulled The World’s plug. I am beginning to regret flushing spiders away when I find them in my bath.

sigh, I new this moment would arrive. Some food archaeology for you: the romans made salt in lead-lined pans and added blood and urine to the brine. Nobody is quite sure why the urine. However, I'm a Bacon Wizard and understand that the NEXT stage of ham making required burying the ham in wood ashes. Potassium in the ash may well combine with urea and nitrogen to make nitrates which cure pork. Here goes :(

On Wednesday the 10th of March this year, Bacon Wizard attended a stakeholder’s meeting at Noble House in London: The Headquarters of the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs.

Subject du jour was the move by Brussels to ban use of saltpetre and nitrites in the organic curing of meats. It has been something of a surprise to the EU that certain producers in The UK object loudly to these proposals; the committee in Brussels probably feel they are doing the right thing. Bless.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing indeed.

No surprise that your friendly Bacon Wizard has strong views, and was determined to make them heard. Thanks to Robin Fransella from DEFRA, they were indeed heard loud and clear. There was agreement and welcome support from the UK’s industry leaders, food technologists, legal experts and government departments.

Saltpetre has been instrumental in the successful curing of artisan meats since at least the Roman era, and possibly as far back as prehistoric times. (It is a salt found in caves, although latterly manufactured, especially when needed to make explosives!) While its early use was driven purely by what was seen to work and with no science to support it, one can hardly compare this with some of our other ancient practices which thankfully did not make it into modern usage:

[ Deadly nightshade is seen to make an excellent eye-drop if you wish to 

a) appear in love 

and 

b) die slowly and horribly! ]

As so often happens, the greedy sought greater convenience and profit for themselves. Saltpetre and its derivatives became abused in amounts that might affect the greater population's health (In much the same way as farming has overused it on the land in the past, too) Laws were therefore passed to prevent this, once scientific knowledge caught up with the practice.

Now though, the political impetus to completely ban the use of saltpetre or more potent cousin “Sodium Nitrite” in organic bacon production, threatens not only the artisan but the consumer too. Authorities are so poorly educated in these increasingly specialist (and if we’re not careful, extinct) areas of craftsmanship that to make useful judgements on behalf of a public; to inform the public even, is impossible. Unfortunately it seems that knowledge is not power. Certainly we are seeing once again that one can exert power without knowledge.

In answer to this increasingly obvious deficit, and in self defence, wider industry has made inroads to understanding the curing process over the last 2 years: Hardly complete, but groundbreaking nevertheless. Especially considering how unbelievably complex it is in biochemical terms. some might even say magical. It was indeed the alchemists (who included people such as Newton among their number) who first identified nitrates (saltpetre being such a thing) as the “source of life itself”. 

A statement too far in-fact, but in modern science confirms the vast importance of these compounds in biochemistry. 

Shame then, that until yesterday’s Stakeholder meeting, nobody wanted to know. 

Is it too late? Will a knee-jerk political reaction consign millennia of dedicated artisans to the history book? At the moment, just about, a bacon butty doesn’t have to be organic to be good. But the point is that if the proposed changes to EU law are passed, it will be impossible to be both organic, and good. That can’t be right.

Organics have always claimed to be more about ethics than quality, which is a shame. But in the 21st century some joined-up thinking might now be the order of the day. The objective; to understand our ecosystem such that quality and ethics meet each other and go skipping hand-in-hand onto the consumer’s plate.

In modern terms then, this represents a chance to declare once and for all where the organic movement hopes to go. Something that is truly relevant and accessible to the non-flag-waving majority might be a good start: The fruits of organic labour need to be a thing that non-subscribers can, nevertheless, both enjoy and afford.

This being said, such an aspiration would require a day-to-day understanding of food production and economics which are currently lacking in our population. Given the recent demise of close community and the nuclear family, our experiences come primarily through supermarkets and media. It seems strange to me that food knowledge is of any less importance than say reading and writing. After all, we put it inside our bodies! At base level, eating differs in no way from administering a complex package of drugs. It can also be hugely pleasurable, and helps quite a lot with not being dead, too.

So let me address one small part of that problem and ensure that you, dear reader, have been informed.

Saltpetre, and the “nitrites” into which they can be transformed quite naturally, are vital for pork to become bacon or ham, organic or otherwise. The quantities in bacon are vastly smaller than the amounts found naturally in green leafy vegetables. What concerns there might be for health can be very easily prevented by use of herbs and spices, or vitamin C which protects the consumer from any potential harm (which is itself a contentious issue) There are no alternative technologies to replace the last few millennia of nitrate use, and there never will be. 

Agreed, there are many, many reasons to resent the shrinking piece of something-or-other that you bought (2 for the price of one, no doubt!) and the scummy water you find in the pan. But that’s simply an issue of supermarket giants and their multinational suppliers making awful bacon, full of water and other undesirables in order to drive down price and increase profit. While none of the above parties might appreciate the role of nitrites other than for a bit of colour and shelf-life, the following statement is no less true:

For the absolutely everyone: artisan, multinational company, or for you and your family, the total banning of nitrites in curing would mean-

 

No. 

More. 

Bacon.

Bacon Wizard left that meeting in London yesterday confident that this was now understood by the DEFRA representative, confident in the UK’s international position and in the force of its argument. Other member states are perhaps used to thinking of Britain as a culinary midget. But in a moment when the rest of the EU are filled with apathy, they could be in for a very big shock indeed.

After all, we do make BLOODY good bacon! And you can't ignore that. 

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