Did Shakespeare eat this bacon?


Rashers Elizabethan-style

IT IS April 23 as I write, which is both St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, although some say it was Francis Bacon who really was the Bard of Avon.

I’m having no truck with that. In fact, I’m thinking ‘Did Shakespeare really eat this bacon?’

Recently I’ve been making my own bacon at home to an Elizabethan recipe which uses ginger and caraway in the cure, along with salt and sugar. In the finished product you can’t really isolate either spice but they meld together in a gentle, subtle way. And it’s just the thing Shakespeare could have eaten.

The recipe is courtesy of Maynard Davies, regarded by home bacon curers as the absolute tops, who took the trouble to research the cure. But it comes second hand, being quoted in that excellent book, The Gentle Art of Preserving by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi (Kyle Books, 2013).


The joint has been boned and is ready for curing

Their version of this recipe can be made in a sealed ziplock plastic bag, or similar, without any of that draining and repeated rubbing in conventional dry-curing as outlined here. 

You can use either pork belly (for streaky) or loin (for middle cut) and it’s probably best to ask your butcher to bone the joint for you. I always keep and freeze the bones until I have enough for a stock or feel like boiling or baking beans. I buy mine from Waterall Brothers (www.waterall.co.uk), the pork specialists on Sheffield’s Moor Market.

I ask for a kilo of bacon at a time, or just over to allow for the bones to be filleted, which is the size which will fit the bag. If your butcher cuts too big a piece simply cut off what you don’t need and use the meat some other way.

This recipe doesn’t use curing salts (the type which turns bacon a pleasant pink and makes it last longer) but if you care more about flavour than looks then ordinary table salt will do (rock or sea salt will prove more expensive).

For each kilo of boned meat you will need:

35g salt

18g brown sugar

3g each of ground ginger and crushed caraway seeds

Mix them all together in a bowl and with your fingers massage all of the cure into the joint, ensuring most is on the meat side and just 10 per cent on the skin.

Now slip it into a ziplock or similar. I put this bag inside a big plastic bag to prevent leakage and pop that into an empty ice cream container for good measure. Then all you have to do is leave it in the fridge for seven days (date the back with a marker pen), remembering to turn the bag every day to make sure the resultant brine covers all the meat.


Wrap the joint in a plastic bag

When its time is up take it out and discard the bags. Drain the bacon (it will feel much firmer than when you put the joint in) and resist the temptation to rinse it but pat it dry. Now you must dry it for a couple of days. I put mine on a plastic draining tray (so the air can circulate) and put it back in the fridge.

You now need a sharp carving knife with which to cut it, particularly if you want rind-on bacon. If not, carefully slice it off. If you think the slices are too thick simply lay them between two sheets of clingfilm and bash them flat with a rolling pin.

A kilo is a lot of bacon so I freeze my bacon in batches of six rashers so I need to cure bacon only once every three weeks or so.


The finished bacon needs to dry

As far as I can discover, William Shakespeare never mentions bacon once in his plays and poems but that doesn’t mean to say he didn’t eat it.

FOOTNOTE: Maynard Davies is the author of several books on curing bacon, hams and other cuts, beginning with Adventures of a Bacon Curer in 2003. Two others, Secrets of etc and Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer (2007 and 2009) may well be rebranded books. There is a fascinating video of him, interviewed by Sophie Grigson, available at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf9RhKlkODk


How to make streaky bacon

Cutting bacon into rashers

Cutting bacon into rashers

It was when some white gunk oozed out of the bacon rashers in my pan – and these hadn’t been cheap – that I had finally had enough. I didn’t want gunk, I wanted bacon which tasted like I thought I remembered it did!

That gunk was brine which had been injected into the bacon to speed up the curing and make it weigh and cost more. It wasn’t so long ago that the butchery trade magazines carried adverts for products with the claim: “Make more money, just add water.”

So I decided to make my own. I researched the different cures, wet and dry, and how to smoke bacon. It looked daunting. And there was this curious chemical saltpetre, to make the meat pink. How could I get hold of it and be sure I was using the correct amount for the relatively amount of bacon I was using?

Books like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat were useful and I soon got the picture. All you really need to cure bacon is salt. You can add sugar, also a preservative, to offset the saltiness and add sweetness. And whatever herbs and spices you want. I don’t bother with saltpetre. My bacon is a pleasantly pinky-grey.

I dry cure belly pork to make streaky. I get my butcher, the admirable Konrad Kempka on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, to cut a two pound (one kilo) joint for me because that’s the size which fits into the Tupperware box which goes in the fridge. He also obligingly debones it for me. Keep the bones, you can always find a use for them.

My cure for 2lbs of pork is 3oz of salt, 3oz of sugar, Demerara preferably but you can use granulated, which I mix together in a tub. Then I grind up whichever spices take my fancy, fennel and allspice last time, but I have also added bay and coriander. Mix thoroughly with the salt and sugar.

I rub about a quarter of the cure all over the bacon, top and bottom and sides, massaging it in well, in all the nooks and crannies, pop it in the box, leave the lid loose and forget about it for a day. That’s all you do. Simple isn’t it?

Well not quite all you do for next day you will find the pork sitting in a pool of liquid, the water which has been leached out. The joint, floppy the day before, is also firming up.

Drain the liquid, and rub another quarter of the mix into the meat, as before. If it was skin side up first time put it back into the box skin side down. And repeat until your mix is used up. If you forget don’t worry. I have left the bacon in for 48 or 72 hours with no ill effects.

Four or five days later you, or rather the belly pork, is done. It is now bacon. Give it a rinse. If you think it will be too salty soak it for an hour or two. Then drain and dry. I wrap mine in a clean tea towel for 24 hours then replace the wrapping with greaseproof paper.

Cut your slices with a sharp carving knife. If your slices are too thick simply put them between sheets of greaseproof and whack them with a rolling pin. Cook them as you like. I prefer a ridged griddle. Your rashers will shrink more than shop bought ones (less water, no gunk) and this way is kinder than a frying pan.

They will taste good. Mine tend to be on the salty side (you soon get used to it) but you can always soak for longer. The general rule is the bacon will keep for the length of time it was cured so I cut the bacon joint in two and freeze one half.

You don’t have to stick with rashers. The bacon makes good lardons or a substitute for pancetta in Italian recipes. Cut it into steaks, grilled and served with Puy lentils, French-style.

What I really like (moment of smugness coming on) is to serve myself a bacon sandwich made with my own bread (it does have to be white) and my own brown sauce.


Pork belly - the beginnings of bacon

Pork belly – the beginnings of bacon. Rub in your cure

The finished result

The finished result