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 potassium carbonate (very strong alkali) 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.

Happy curing!

Jasper aka BWiz

·         Relativistic Curing (Time travel and ham) 

·         Bacon Wizard defies the laws of nature and wins (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indiscernible from magic)

·         A grain of truth (lost ingredient)

·         The role of bacon in culture. Why is bacon (cured meat, but especially pork) important?

·         Roman Ham: blood, sweat and tears (and a few other things)

·         Milk and Honey!

·         Asterix and Obelix’s secret cure (Or, how to annoy the Romans. And ME!)

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…..

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.

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.

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