It wasn’t until we had slaughtered our first round of pigs that I fully understood what bacon actually is. I had understood it was a cut of the meat, either from the back or the belly, but I really didn’t understand that until your cure the meat it remains, essentially, pork. There is a magical transformation that takes place, changing it from pork to that most sought after and saliva inducing of meats, bacon.
I know that big slabs of meat are not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I really feel that if you are going to partake of meat you should be very aware of where it comes from and how it is made. It’s not enough to double check the packet for ‘nitrate free’ because that really doesn’t tell you anything about the animal, how it lived, what conditions it endured and how it was slaughtered. Also the label nitrate free is a bit of a misnomer as celery salt, the preserving ingredient, is basically a nitrate.
Nitrate free also doesn’t mean that the animal lived a good life, lived a life that it deserved to live. Our pigs live outside (with shelter), giving them access to soft ground, sunshine and pasture to graze on. They can behave like pigs are supposed to behave, roaming and rooting, snuggling up when they want to nap and enjoying a good laze about in the cool of a wallow when the sun beats down. They are not locked up in a shed with a concrete floors, denied the company of their own kind and subject to diseases such as the one spreading throughout the US and Canada right now.
Animals raised using organic methods can still get sick, but I really believe that keeping them in conditions that reflect their nature, gives them the best chance of remaining robust and healthy. And a healthy animal is a good animal to eat, it’s fat full of vitamin d and it’s meat nourishing and strengthening.
That said bacon is only one cut from a pig and should be treated with respect. We can’t expect to eat it every day, we don’t and we raise pigs! It is only part of a whole animal and when we as consumers demand only the ‘luxury’ part of the pig, but at a bargain basement price, we are passing the cost of the meat back onto the pig. The only thing the farmer can do to meet that demand is to lower the welfare (and therefore the cost) of the animal. But we pay the price too when we eat an inferior product, denying ourselves the chance to be really nourished by our food.
The slabs of pork belly we get back from the butcher for curing still retain the skin and remind us that we are eating an animal, an animal we looked after, petted, fed, sprayed water on during the summer and said a solemn goodbye to in the fall. We participated in the cycle of it’s life and gave it the best version of everything that we could. When we eat the meat we do so with respect, acknowledging that cycle and the work we put in to achieve it. This may sound strange but that makes the final eating of it all the sweeter.
The way I cure my bacon is by what is called a ‘dry’ cure, something that humans have done for millennia to preserve food. It draws out the moisture in the meat and aids in the prevention of bacteria, anything from fish to whole sides of meat can be preserved this way. But we are only curing it, giving it the flavour of the salt and herbs and then smoking or freezing it, this is what draws the moisture out of the meat transforming it from pork to bacon.
The cure I use is taken from the River Cottage Meat Book, an invaluable resource for anyone looking to get the most out of meat. There are recipes for every single cut from all the animals you are likely to raise, it teaches how to use some of the less desirable parts and turn them into delicious treats as well as how to butcher and preserve meat.
For a belly of pork you’ll need about 1kg of course sea salt, 200g of brown sugar, a few teaspoons of pepper, some bay leaves and some juniper berries if you can get them. Cut your belly into smaller sections (that can fit inside a ziploc bag) and then rub the cure lovingly into it, giving it a salty, herby crust that will immediately begin to draw out moisture. Pop into a large ziploc and then keep in the fridge for 5-7 days, turning every couple of days to allow the cure to really work evenly. When your time is up give it a good wash and try a piece, add more cure and give it more time if needed but I’ve never had this experience with this recipe.
After curing you can smoke the bacon or just freeze it, I would advise cutting it into smaller portions so that you can use it before it begins to turn. Pasture raised bacon is a healthy meat but it is still quite a treat and more delicious when treated as such. The pig is an amazing animal that nourishes both the land and people with an amazing variety of deliciousness, so next time you eat bacon really take the time to enjoy it. We are lucky to have it and even luckier when we get to make our own.