I am extraordinarily fond of maple syrup. Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, the sugar maple does not grow here in the sub-tropics, so I must rely on the imported product, and the occasional generosity of international friends for my fix. Poured liberally over fruit, yoghurt, and pancakes is my usual option, but in the past, under conditions of supreme abundance I have made maple syrup cake, muffins, ice-cream, and – Oh! Glory! maple crème brulée. Imagine my delight to find that there is in the world such a thing as maple-cured bacon! A feast of maple-cured bacon is officially on my bucket list, as of right now.
Sugar in one form or another has been used in curing meats for a long time. As well as assisting the preservation process, the use of sugar (honey, molasses, maple syrup) adds a sweet edge to the flavour, and a nice balance to the saltiness and smokiness of the cured meat - a greater issue in pre-refrigeration days, when both processes were much more heavily applied.
There are many references to ‘sweet bacon’ in historical food literature, but it does not always mean that sugar has been used in the curing process. ‘Sweet’, when applied to such things as meat and fish often refers to the absence of negative qualities such as staleness, fustiness, sourness, offensive smell (or outright putridity), and invasion by ‘nauseous insects' caused by failure of the preservation process. A writer for the New England Farmer (1861) explained the problem rather graphically, and offered a strategy to minimise it:
‘Every person of experience knows how difficult it is to keep bacon sweet throughout the summer months; flies and other nauseous insects are attracted to it, and deposit their filthy eggs and slimy larvae in every available crevice, till the meat is worthless, and more than all that, all animal matter has a tendency to taint and decompose, and bacon is very liable to suffer in that way, unless indurated with salt to such a degree as to make it unpalatable. As smoke is a disinfectant, and a strong antiseptic, all the bacon that is to be kept for summer use I let remain in the smoke-house, and occasionally fumigate it with a pan of smoking cobs, the best preventative of taint as well as repellent of flies, bugs, and other nauseous insects.’
In the same year, in Britain, Mrs Isabella Beeton, in her Book of Household Management (1861) was battling with the same problem, but suggested a different solution:
To keep the bacon sweet and good, and free from hoppers, sift fine some clean and dry wood ashes. Put some at the bottom of a box or chest long enough to hold a flitch of bacon; lay in one flitch, and then put in more ashes, then another flitch, and cover this with six or eight inches of ashes. The place where the box or chest is put ought to be dry, and should the ashes become damp, they should be put in the fireplace to dry, and when cold, put back in again. With these precautions, the bacon will be as good at the end of the year as on the first day.
The problem of invasion of bacon by filthy eggs and slimy larvae is, thankfully, rarely a problem for us today, thanks no doubt to the producers’ impressive armamentarium of chemical preservatives – which may or may not be a different sort of health problem. At least one had a chance of spotting filthy eggs and slimy larvae on one’s breakfast plate.
Now, if you really want sweet bacon, try this!
To make Collops like Bacon of Marchpane.
Take some of your Marchpane [marzipan] Paste, and work it in red Saunders [sandalwood] till it be red; then rowl a broad sheet of white Paste, and a sheet of red Paste; three of the white and four of the red, and so one upon the other in mingled sorts, every red between, then cut it overthwart, till it look like Collops of Bacon, then dry it.
A Queen’s Delight, 1671
Quotation for the Day.
I’ve long said that if I were about to be executed and were given a choice of my last meal, it would be bacon and eggs. There are few sights that appeal to me more than the streaks of lean and fat in a good side of bacon, or the lovely round of pinkish meat framed in delicate white fat that is Canadian bacon. Nothing is quite as intoxicating as the smell of bacon frying in the morning, save perhaps the smell of coffee brewing.