I say “Face Bacon”; the Italians say Guanciale

Of course they would; even when swearing, Italian sounds as though it comes from the mouth of angels, rather than the hacking throat clearing from those rough Anglo-Saxons in the North and this word roughly translates as “pillow“. Which some people seem to think somehow sounds less offensive than “face bacon”. I suppose they might be right…

But then part of the problem with modern food buying habits is that the whole process has been removed from its sources and roots; so much so, that people who buy meat from a supermarket may actually have no clue from what part of the animal the joint or meat section actually emanates.

And that’s just plain wrong. At least if you buy from a proper butcher (not just one that re-packages meat from some other source further “upstream”) you can see him or her breaking down the carcase, then cutting those pieces in turn into smaller sections to produce the cuts with which we’re all familiar.

Face Bacon is similar to the US “jowl bacon”. And to Bath Chaps, a regional speciality which result from using just the lower half of the cheeks. When Jane Grigson wrote her hugely influential “English Food”, account of British cookery in the 1980s

Jane Grigson's "English Food"

Jane Grigson’s “English Food”

they were available from only one source, a supplier of cooked meat in the city’s covered market. Their version, coated in breadcrumbs, was cured like ham. It’s still sold there today but now it’s also become a bit of a staple in a number of the smarter (in intelligence & “chops” terms) chefs kitchens in and around the area.

So, this is the third time I’ve made face bacon in the last couple of months, but it’s the first time I’ve actually remembered to photograph the few stages necessary along this road to pork heaven.

I followed the very simple guide in my Holy Grail of smoking & curing already referenced (for those whose memory like mine is shot to hell, it’s by Steve Lamb and it’s called, unsurprisingly, “Curing & Smoking”).

The cure is made of a 50-50 mixture of pure dried vacuum salt and brown sugar (I use molasses but it’s entirely up to you, as are the rest of the ingredients) plus a handful of bruised juniper berries,  a couple of torn up bay leaves, another handful or two of crushed black & red pepper-corns and some mace. Mix it up roughly in a bowl, then distribute a layer across the bottom of your curing tray (I use the salad container in my fridge, which works perfectly), then throw a handful over the pigs cheeks.

This is how they should look before they go back into the cure tray and into the fridge. It’s a dusting rather than a heavy coating.

Day 1 of the face bacon

After 24 hours, take the box out of the fridge, pour away any liquid that’s accumulated in the bottom that’s leached out from the meat, scatter another handful of cure underneath and onto the cheeks and then put it back into the fridge. Do this for 3 days.

Then, on Day Four, take them out of the tray, wash both the tray and the cheeks under cold water, until all the cure is removed and pat everything dry. Then, put the cheeks back into the newly cleaned & dried tray and back again into the fridge.

Washed & dried cheeks after 3 days curing

Washed & dried cheeks after 3 days curing

After these three days, the bacon is ready to carve, cook and eat. But remember that it’s now been cured by this process & thus preserved. It’ll last. For quite a while if you want. Whether you’ll be able to leave it for any length of time is an exercise in self-denial that I’ve so far failed on.

So, whether you start eating it now or in a few days doesn’t matter. It’s now face bacon in all its glory.

Sliced bacon after a further 4 days in the fridge

And the resultant bacon? Intricate lines of incandescent poetry, dancing on the tongue. The fat, rendering down in the pan, cooking off the other items (I’d suggest a duck egg or two and some fried potatoes). And the smell — oh, man, the smell. Just like when I was a kid…

You see how not difficult this was? Why are you even still here reading when you could be making your own? Start curing. Now! And a happy start to 2015 could yet be yours!

Not a stylite; but on fire nevertheless

Anthony the Great. Loved pigs. And heading off, to spend long periods of time in the desert. And the patron saint of skin diseases. Thus St. Anthony’s Fire. Nothing to do with BBQ’ing the pork though.

This pig looks a little like the Essex Saddleback. But in that location in Egypt? Probably not.

Anthony the Great by-Piero di Cosimo

Anthony the Great by-Piero di Cosimo

A Calendar Page for December 2014

Again, from The British Library:

In this folio, a man is butchering a hog outdoors, wielding a long, sharp knife.  A bucket of blood is beneath the slaughtering table, and above, we can see a wooly ram (perhaps aghast at the carnage), for the zodiac sign Capricorn.  Surrounding this scene is another golden architectural frame, populated with angels playing musical instruments, and a kneeling monk above, perhaps in honour of the feast of the Nativity.

Calendar page for December, with a roundel miniature of a man butchering a hog, with the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 13r

Calendar page for December, with a roundel miniature of a man butchering a hog, with the zodiac sign Capricorn, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 13r

A calendar page for November 2014

Courtesy of the British Library are these two calendar pages for the month of November:

A calendar page for November 2014

A calendar page for November 2014

…which show a typical labour for this part of the agricultural season – the fattening of pigs for Autumn. On the opening folio, beneath the beginning of the saints’ days for the month, is a roundel of a peasant in the woods. He is armed with a long stick, and is engaged in knocking acorns from oak trees to feed the pigs that are rooting around near his feet.

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On the following folio, we can see a small miniature of a centaur with a bow and arrow, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius. Beneath him is another peasant, heading home after a day of feeding pigs. He looks fairly miserable – understandably enough, as he is walking through a heavy rainstorm. Surrounding this roundel and the continuation of the saints’ days is a frame made up of golden columns, circled by banners with the initials ‘MY’ and ‘YM’. These initials might be clues to the original owner of the manuscript, whose identity/identities are still unknown.

Who doesn’t love a man in armour?

I don’t want to become a butcher but I do want to know the provenance of the meat I use to cook with, exactly where on the animal it comes from and the best way to handle it with respect for the animal. I won’t be buying a side of beef anytime soon (have you any idea how much a side costs?), nor, having seen the amount of work & skill that goes into it, would I be butchering one anytime soon, even if I did buy one.

Evolving to the butcher

Evolving to the butcher

So, Saturday afternoon…

Dressed in a fetching apron, an equally fetching (and surprisingly light) set of chain-mail & with my left hand (the “gripping” hand maybe, for those fans of Larry Niven’s Moties) also clad in a protective metal glove, I was ready for action.

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I had more than three hours ahead of me, training (and sweating) with the hugely skilled, patient & helpful Adrian, master butcher at Franklins Farm, who was there to make sure I didn’t damage myself, the two other neophytes also being shown a few knife skills or, most importantly, the meat that we were to work on.

In that he mainly succeeded; and I even managed to make a reasonable fist of boning out, butchering & presenting some lamb during the first couple of hours.

Homeward bound lamb…

What you don’t see in these pictures is the amount of sweat that I lost, the sheer jaw-dropping amazement that anyone could, almost sight unseen, work out where these bones went and thus where to stick and (more importantly) where not to stick the knife and the effortless skill shown by Adrian when removing meat from bone — he doesn’t cut, he glides behind the meat, along the bone, pushes it aside, so that the meat almost just drops away.

I’m not quite there yet. But keeping the knife point (for it’s really only the point that you need to use when boning) sharp, sharpSHARP is key. Adrian would sharpen it after almost every occasion he cut, a couple of quick, almost casual swipes at the steel sufficing. He doesn’t push his knife into the meat, a gentle caress and it falls apart, skin (and bone) being no barrier. I soon found that a knife anything less than scalpel-sharp meant a world of pain & frustration when trying to use it to cut.

Next was a leg of pork. I’ve no photos of this work, being both hugely busy & hugely involved in watching what he did, where he cut, how he cut and being slightly more confident now, I wielded the saw, the knives with no little aplomb and eventually produced a piece of boned leg (trotter less of course), bare of skin, that, even though I say so myself, was actually not bad at all.

It actually turned into more than four hours of learning as we talked about beef and game and his 39 years in the profession. The cold-store, as well as being a great place to duck into to cool my raging brow when the heat at the cutting block got too much, also had some amazing sides and 35-day old hung joints of beef to gaze at, in mouth watering desire.

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So, what did I learn? A huge amount about how meat hangs onto bones and where to cut most effectively and efficiently. A small number of little tips ‘n tricks that help speed up the butchering process and that I can use in the kitchen. Where some of the cuts of meat I buy actually come from on the beasts and what they look like before they’re laid out, wrapped and set on the counter to buy. The requirement to keep the knife sharp. And a huge respect for the art of butchery.

Oh, and most importantly, I can confidently & without fail, tie the essential butcher’s knot, without which, no joint of meat is finished.

I loved it; I hope to be going back again soon to do some work with beef which, I’m promised, will really make me sweat. I can’t recommend this course enough — if you get a chance to attend one, grab it. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s interesting. And you walk away with lots of great meat that you butchered yourself. What’s not to like?