Monday, February 1, 2010

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Bookshelf: Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer

What makes a good bacon curer is not rocket science,
but common sense.
The whole idea is not only to make bacon
but good bacon.

~ Maynard Davies

Such is the thrall in which bacon holds modern Americans that a young woman approached me and my stack of curing manuals at the coffee shop and, barely taking her eyes off them, asked “Can I come home with you?”

The passions which bacon ignites are understandable. Bacon should be wonderful. It should ignite passions. So often, it's the idea of bacon that fires us rather than actual bacon. Which is not how it used to be. In his 1833 Cottage Economy, William Cobbett lauded the stuff: “it has twice as much strength in it of any other thing of the same weight.” It’s only recently that truly excellent cured and smoked sowbelly has been broadly available as Americans rediscover the flavors and textures that we’ve been missing for all too long.

Most of what has passed for bacon during my lifetime has been pallid, tepid stuff. Oh, it was ok. And occasionally examples from small smokehouses were great. But the majority was so pumped with water and polyphosphates that it shrank to half its size on frying and threw off a strange white residue that brought to mind the gummy white residuum that accumulates in the corners of some peoples’ mouths when they’ve forgotten to drink their water.


Enter master curer Maynard Davies. I don’t go much for role models, but if I did, Davies—Britain’s reigning bacon pornographer—would be king of them all. Retired now from the trade, he’s a bit of a cult hero in the UK, a darling of Slow Food types for his continuing promotion of traditional British charcuterie. Given Americans’ lust for bacon and a growing locavore sentiment, it’s surprising he’s not better known here. His new book, Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer, might be just the thing to bring him to wider and well-deserved American attention.

His previous books—Adventures of a Bacon Curer and Secrets of a Bacon Curer—were charming memoirs from a seasoned expert in curing meats, must-haves for aspiring bacon-makers with a bit of experience under their belts, but not how-to manuals. Davies is dyslexic and his earlier, less structured, narratives about life on his farm and the vagaries of cottage industry charcuterie meant one had to read between the lines a bit to glean valuable gems about curing meats.

Not this time. Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer shows a firm editorial hand and explains his processes in clear, tight detail. It is truly a manual. Even an amateur could pick up this book and come away with a solid idea of what’s involved in curing pork and how to get started. The charm is still there. But his recipes are now laid out with precise ingredients and succinct directions. If there’s a brine, it’s not a “strong brine”—it’s 70% or 40% or whatever that particular recipe calls for. The color photographs are the best of any charcuterie or butchery book in my library.

The manual is meant for professional bacon curers and others who work with pork who might regularly break down entire pig carcasses, but the small batch sizes and easily scalable recipes mean that amateur and aspiring bacon curers will be able to tackle most of these recipes at home or in restaurant kitchens. A smoker, however, does help with the most interesting of the recipes.

Ingredients, techniques, and tools are covered as are facilities. Want to know how to lay out a curing house? That’s here. So is how to construct a proper smokehouse and how to maintain brine tanks. He includes notes on which pigs of what size to use and lays out—in full-color, step-by-step photos—how to divide their carcasses into useable parts. Be warned that the photos are deliciously graphic.

Recipes—about 150 of them—cover bacon (wet and dry cures), ham, an array of sausages, and other specialty items such as brawn, tongue, black puddings, and faggots (no snickering: they’re ancient British forcemeat balls roasted under a mantel of caul fat, akin to fancy-ass French crépinettes). Want haggis recipes? There are two. One, seemingly, is not enough.

Bacon varieties include: Ayrshire (with Demerara and black pepper); Derbyshire Favourite spiked with juniper berries; hard Romany bacon with mace, bay, and caraway; Penitentiary Dry Cured (a recipe learned from his younger days teaching American prisoners how to cure meats); London Spiced (allspice, coriander, muscovado sugar); and others, variously infused with the flavors of ginger, honey, raisins, coriander, cider, red wine, white pepper, red pepper, beer, treacle, and other ingredients that could delight American palates unfamiliar with traditional British recipes.

If you make sausage or cure your own meats—any kind, not just pork—don’t delay. Get a copy of Maynard’s book today.

It’s the one we’ve been waiting for.

Maynard Davies (2009)
Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer
160 pages, hardback
Merlin Unwin Books
ISBN: 978 1 906122089

Buy it directly from here or US Amazon here.


Trid said...

Can I come home with you?

Anonymous said...

I meant what I said - I would have followed you home ... Thank you for making my Sunday morning better.

Matthew Rowley said...

Trid ~ We'll have to work on something. I'll be on the road most of February, but March is wide open.

And you, young lady, would have found little here but whiskey, pork, and books. Huh. On second thought, that's not so bad...I was glad to meet you two as well.