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


Harry Potter and the Last Polony

Neal Potter with his polony

Neal Potter with his polony

JK Rowling hasn’t written it yet but Harry Potter and the Last Polony would make a very good title for a book. A polony is a red-skinned boiled sausage which once was a Sheffield speciality but has now been all but forgotten.

But I have found it still being made in Wombwell, near Barnsley, by award-winning pieman Neal Potter, third generation butcher and son of Harry, very possibly the last surviving artisan polony maker in the country.

It’s a sad fall from grace for a sausage, which, if it was never exactly posh although once made in Bath, had been a pre-cooked, quick-fix meal for generations. Today it is mostly bought by the elderly in South Yorkshire and by anglers. A commercial, tinned variety is preferred by carp fisherman to luncheon meat for bait.

My search was inspired by a tweet from city-born writer Rachel Cooke who wrote in the Observer that she remembered polony “as not particularly nice.” I’d never heard of it and then confused it with saveloy, also bright red, which I used to eat Down South. I asked around. People who had heard about it hadn’t seen it for years.

But if it was still made I had to taste it. Traditional Foods in Britain (Prospect Books 2004) describes it as “a cooked pork sausage … the skin is bright red, enclosing pale pink meat. Flavour: mild cured pork, lightly spiced and smoked.” Well, that is how it was.

The name polony is a mystery, being either a corruption of Bologna, the Italian city famous for its sausages, or Polonia (Poland). By the end of the 19th century one reference book said “Sheffield is more celebrated for these cooked sausages than any town in England.” There were two polony mixes, Bath and Yorkshire. Sheffield used the Yorkshire recipe, of course, which included pork, mutton or corned beef, ham or beef fat, flour and rusk, with salt, pepper, mace, ginger and coriander as seasoning.

The authors of Traditional Foods add: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that individual butchers used whatever ingredients they felt would achieve the correct texture.”

Polony survived two world wars and Waterall Brothers of Sheffield used to make it until three years ago, according to Kevin on their stall at the Moor Market. From what he says I gather pretty much anything went into it (no bad thing in itself) until the regulations changed and made it too expensive to manufacture for the price people wanted to pay.

But polony still exists. Potters make it for sale on stalls in Barnsley market and you can buy it at their shop in the middle of Wombwell. Polony is listed on Potter’s website under savouries, between black pudding and savoury ducks. I bought two ‘sticks’ or ‘links’ of polony at their shop in the middle of Wombwell. They are in 15cm lengths wrapped in red plastic ‘chubs’ weighing just under 200g and costing a few pence short of £1. The label gives the pork content as 59pc.

The factory is half a mile down the road and boss Neal Potter was happy to see me even though I called unannounced. Aged 51, he is a delightful man, very passionate about his products for which he has won many awards. Polony is made to his father Harry’s recipe and he uses a mix of shoulder and belly pork with water, rusk and their own seasoning. He cut up a polony for me to taste.

It is quite bland with a soft texture, just a bit firmer than potted meat, and you can feel the rusk on your tongue. The meat is beige rather than the traditional pink. The sausage is boiled – a new batch was in the vats as we spoke – so I’m guessing this is a version of the economy frying sausage Potter’s sell. “We make it every day,” he said. It’s pleasant but modest in flavour.

Neal, who runs the business with his wife Catherine and two sons, said polony sells well but not as much as his black pudding. “It’s the older generation who buy it. We are trying to educate younger people. . . If you could get them to taste it I am sure they would eat it.”

As Catherine said, you still see it on local buffet tables and at funeral teas, along with ‘savoury ducks. Neal has his sliced in sandwiches or fried along with his bacon and egg for breakfast. I tried and it doesn’t taste bad that way. Now that would be a unique selling point for local hotels and B&Bs, the Full Barnsley Breakfast: bacon, egg, Potter’s black pudding and polony.
Potters of Barnsley, Barnsley Road, Wombwell, Barnsley, S73 8DJ. Tel: 01226 753323. Web: http://www.pottersofbarnsley.co.uk

A taste of polony

A taste of polony

Potter's shop in Wombwell

Potter’s shop in Wombwell