Monday, June 14, 2010

Bacon Week: Part the First.

There is something about bacon, isn’t there? I am not sure what it is, but aside from vegetarians and those who eschew it for religious reasons, bacon rules, doesn’t it? Is it the fat, the salt, the umami, the smell of it frying (especially early in the morning)? The sheer efficiency of it as a flavour additive to almost any savoury dish? Or perhaps it is some sort of ancestral memory thing? Bacon is an ancient comfort food at the most basic level. A flitch of bacon hanging in your chimney in the days before refrigeration and convenience stores meant that all was well with the world, even when it wasn’t.

It is time for this blog to give bacon its due reverence. When I feel stronger and better informed, in a future post I will attempt to clarify American, English, Canadian, Australian and other national interpretations of bacon, but for today, a short glossary of bacon-related words might be in order.

Bacon: the word originally comes from an old German word for ‘back’, because originally it referred to salted meat from the back (and sides) of a pig. Nowadays it often refers to cured meat from the belly of the pig, and at different times in-between and since it has also meant the entire pig, live, fresh, or salted. The salted (cured) element being crucial to most of its usage, there was in medieval times such thing a thing as whale blubber ‘bacon’ – and now we have the modern descendants such as turkey bacon etc, as well as 'mutton ham' and other cousins.

Ham: The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of this word as ultimately deriving from an Old German word hamm meaning crooked (is this where we get ‘ham-fisted’ from?) The first definition given by the OED is ‘that part of the leg at the back of the knee; the hollow or bend of the knee’, and this usage is recorded over two thousand years ago. By the seventeenth century it was being used to refer specifically to ‘the thigh of a slaughtered animal, used for food; spec. that of a hog salted and dried in smoke or otherwise; also, the meat so prepared.’

Gammon: the word is related to the words jamon (Spanish) and jambon (French), and refers to the ‘haunch of a swine’. As the ‘j’ is pronounced ‘h’, you can hear that it is really another way of pronouncing 'ham'. ‘Gammon’ has been used in English since the fifteenth century, if the OED is to be believed, and I see no reason why it should not be.

Flitch: I love this word. It is much older, it seems, than ‘ham’ or ‘bacon’, but essentially means the same thing – ‘the side of an animal, now only a hog, salted and cured.’ In other words, it is a whole side of bacon. The OED records its use as far back as about the year 700.

Rasher: The word has been used in English to refer to ‘a thin slice or strip of bacon, or (less commonly) of other meat, intended to be cooked by grilling, broiling, or frying; a slice of meat cooked in this way’ (OED) since the sixteenth century. Interestingly however, in spite of such ‘recent’ usage, the origin of the word is uncertain. The OED notes a ‘recurrent suggestion’ that it may be a borrowing from the Middle French rasure, or shaving, but ‘this is implausible on phonological grounds’. I await suggestions from the linguists’ world.

Now, onto our recipe for the day - and where else to start but with its best-known application - our breakfast bacon and eggs? One upon a time this was called 'collops and eggs', and we have previously had word fun with ‘(s)collops' too. I doubt that even the most inept or disinterested amongst us needs an actual ‘recipe’ for bacon and eggs (or ‘eggs and bacon’ if you prefer - some folk seem to be pernickety about which is correct), but it is always interesting and edifying to read the instructions and appreciate the style of old cookery books, isn’t it? Here is how the inimitable and profilic Gervase Markham described the process in 1615.

Collops and eggs
To have the best Collops and Eggs, you shall take the whitest and youngest bacon; and cutting away the sward, cut the Collops into thin slices; lay them in a dish, and put hot water unto them, and so let them stand an hour or two, for that will take away the extreme saltness; then drain away the water clean, and put them into a dry pewter dish, and lay them one by one, and set them before the heat of the fire, so as they may toast sufficiently through and through: which done, take your Eggs and break them into a dish, and put a spoonful of Vinegar unto them, then set on a clean skillet with fair water on the fire, and as soon as the water boileth put in the Eggs, and let them take a boil or two, then with a spoon try if they be hard enough, then take them up, and trim them, and dry them; and then, dishing up the Collops, lay the Eggs upon them, and so serve them up: and in this sort you may poach Eggs when you please, for it is the best way and most wholesome.
[The English Housewife, Gervase Markham, 1615]

Quotation for the Day

We plan, we toil, we suffer in the hope of what? A camel-load of idol’s eyes? The title deeds of Radio City? TheEmpire of Asia? A trip to the moon? No, no, no, no. Simply to wake in time to smell coffee and bacon and eggs.


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

A fitting tribute! Just the other day, someone was telling me about bacon cupcakes, so that's a pretty good indication of how far our obsession has gone!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi T.W. Here's a question for you: what is the difference between a bacon cupcake and a bacon muffin (I guess the cupcake is sweeter, huh?)
Must be time for another Retro cake challenge, Yes? said...

You neverever mentioned zombies and bacon. Excellent article, though :P

The Old Foodie said...

Hello I dont know about zombies and bacon. Is it something I should know? Do I want to know?

Miss Cholet said...

Aye, can't beat a bacon brekkie. Bacon or pancetta lardons, mature cheese and herbs (thyme and sage) make good muffins. Really good and I've had other people's ham and cheese ones too.

chumbles said...

Lovely, lovely post. For what it's worth I used to live in Essex not far from Great Dunmow where they have revived and keep going the Dunmow Flitch Trials, which is open to married couples from around the world: next one is in 2012!