The Bacon Debate

If the ongoing debate has passed you by here’s a brief, slightly one sided, résumé; the British and Irish have a long history of eating bacon. We love it! The colour, flavour and texture have always been dependent on curing the pork with a mixture of salt and, originally, saltpetre (potassium nitrate). The nitrate changes to nitrite during the curing process so, these days, bacon is normally cured with potassium or sodium nitrite.

Mainly when subjected to high temperatures, nitrites produce nitrosamines which have been shown to be carcinogenic (mainly bowel cancer). Apparently, a bacon sandwich a day will increase your chances of bowel cancer by 18%. Nitrites are banned in Sweden and a few other places (most famously Parma in their ham) have phased its use out. So that’s all pretty damning – not helped by the big boys insisting that it’s essential – mainly because it speeds up the curing process and makes them more money. So I’ll put that down as a negative too.

Naked Bacon

On the plus, or mitigating side; whatever Felicity Cloake in the Guardian Viewspaper says, bacon cured without nitrites (widely available as Naked Bacon) does not taste like bacon at all. It’s over 10% water and tastes like a slice of boiled ham. You can’t caramelise (Maillard reaction) or crisp something with 10% plus water. Incidentally, Finnebrogue, the company that makes Naked Bacon was one of the parties bunging MP, Owen Paterson, fifty odd grand a year. Moving on, it’s all a question of degree. I believe conventional bacon can contain up to 300ppm of residual nitrites. I’d imagine that, for commercial reasons, most does. Last time we had it tested, our ‘Natural Cure Bacon’ had about 20pppm and our normal bacon, not much more. That’s all you need to make it bacon, so the danger is caused, not by the nitrites, but by their excessive use. Working proportionally, a couple of slices of our bacon, in a sandwich a day will only increase the risk of bowel cancer by a more modest 2%. A more normal, one sandwich (or a cooked breakfast) a week will be a seventh of that – well under a third of one percent. I could go on but I’ll rest my case – other than to say that The Guardian, bastion of investigative journalism, should do its homework before printing such reactive, polarising, rubbish. It must have been a bad news day. If there was another paper worth reading, I would.

Using as little nitrite as possible…

Excuse me if I seem a bit touchy on the subject. It’s just that we’ve been doing it for so long that I’ve heard all the arguments before. Back in the early days, we tried it several times, but, good though it can be in stews and casseroles, salted pork is not bacon. Our ‘natural cure’ bacon is testament to the fact that we really have looked at the alternatives and concluded that, for bacon the answer is to use as little nitrite as possible, rather than suggest that there is an alternative – when there isn’t. We started up processing the farm’s pigs and although the pigs have long gone, we’ve stuck with it. Pork should be the meat with the lowest carbon footprint, particularly if they dropped these ridiculous

rules prohibiting the feeding of waste from kitchens and food production (google The Pig Idea). Despite eating far less meat, I struggle to manage without an occasional spare rib steak, but cured, in ham or bacon, it becomes the perfect meat for eating less of – if you see what I mean. These days, our pork comes from Simon Price, just east of Sidmouth, and is better than it has ever been. Simon buys weaners from a breeding unit on the coast and moves them about a hundred yards to his free-range unit (also with a sea view). Because boar (male) pigs grow faster in intensive rearing systems, Simon gets the gilts (females) which are far more suitable for slower, outdoor, rearing. So, it’s a win-win situation. The supermarkets get what they want (quickly reared, tasteless, ultra-tender, pork) and we get slowly reared, free-range pigs with good confirmation (a bit of, but not too much, fat) flavour and texture.

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