Why do we smoke food? The ancients discovered that it acted as a preservative, probably with fish first of all. The smoking process inhibits enzymes in food-spoiling bacteria; adding both smoke and salt, as we do with bacon, is particularly effective. And why do we like the taste of smoky food? Well, forgive me my cod anthropology, but I think man’s attraction to wood smoke is imprinted in our inherited memory. It signifies hearth and home, safety and, best of all, food. This is the powerful emotion provoked by the merest whiff of autumn bonfires, flaming yule logs or smoky bacon. That’s my theory, anyway.
Five tasters assembled to get in touch with their inner caveman: the Recovering Anthropologist (now intending to become a medic), the Carnivorous Undergraduate (finally approaching his scholastic Waterloo), the Pie Snaffler (still intoning his ancient-mariner lament about the death of the euro), the Gourmet Celeb (between homes and grateful for a meal) and the Gluttonous Pig (who approaches this tasting without a hint of irony).
Four important criteria emerged from this bacon-fest: the level of saltiness, the intensity of the smoke, the calibration of the slice and the diet of the porkers (breed is also significant but this was rarely revealed on the packaging). We blind-tasted 18 smoked back bacons from butchers, supermarkets and farmers’ markets. All but one were dry cured – the traditional method where salt is rubbed into the meat before smoking. One was Wiltshire cured, which involves immersion in brine. This is the more watery approach, which leaves more white protein than fat in the cooking pan. Some like the Wiltshire flavour but most of us miss a proper bit of dripping, perfect for a fried egg.
When it came to smoke we found everything from the bold (“thick smoke, not my cup of tea” – RA), to the shy (“lacks a smoky tang” – GC), to the non-existent (“no smoke without fire” – GP). The modern taste is for a mild smoke, whereas the Victorians used to turbocharge their food with a generous dose. Our recommended bacons offer examples of both.
The thickness of the slice is another thing that comes down to personal preference. The farmers’ products tended towards the chunky bucolic, more a doorstep than a rasher (Fortnum & Mason stocks a real throat-strangler). The supermarkets seem to favour a barely discernible streak of protein (Marks and Spencer was a disappointing example). Again, both approaches feature in our favourites.
Finally, the fat of well-fed pigs will have a satisfying, rich, direct flavour. I can’t say what the diet of Sainsbury’s porkers is but we found that its Taste the Difference bacon had a slightly cloying, oily quality that was not to our taste. This was also the Wiltshire cured product.
Three bacons featured in our “highly commended” category. Tesco Finest Oak-Smoked was thinly sliced and quite salty but met with approval: “satisfyingly meaty and savoury” (RA). Hobbs House was a more robust affair: “meaty, piggy, straight from the sty” (GC). And Moen & Sons also offered a fairly traditional slice: “nicely chewy” (PS). Our runner-up, from Harrods, was the most indulgently old-fashioned bacon we found: “dark, smoky, peaty – one for the pipe smokers” (GP). But despite its strength the Pie Snaffler approved: “more cigarillo than Cohiba”.
The winner, on the day, was The Ginger Pig. They rear Tamworths, Old Spots and Berkshires on the North York Moors (and for the pig-obsessed they even make porkpie wedding cakes). Ginger Pig is simply a wonderful bacon. Buy some: “perfect harmony of smoke, meat, fat and salt – oink, oink” (RA); “cracking crackling, perfect porkiness” (CU); “magnificent rasher” (GP); “Bring home this bacon!” (GC).
The Ginger Pig
www.thegingerpig.co.uk, 01751 460091, £4.25 for 250g. Five London branches in Shepherd’s Bush, Marylebone, London Bridge, Hackney and Waterloo