Life would not be complete without bacon. I even love Frazzles – pretend rashers eaten as potato chips – which is about as far as you can get from the real thing, and yet, there’s still something, a shadow, a tantalizing reminder. Bacon is dressed up now in all sorts of eclectic fare. You’ve got your candied bacon ice cream, your bacon muffins, your chocolate-covered bacon. But nothing beats a bacon butty. Even the name spells hope in the morning. One bite and you know that everything is right with the world. Muffled bread and sweet splinters of saltiness.
When I was on Coronation Street, each morning before shooting would begin with a trip to the breakfast bus. Bacon butty, strong milky coffee. Bliss. Years before, my long trudge to drama school every day was spent scanning the pavement for a glinting pound coin possibly overlooked, so I could get the tube in. My reward, when I finally made it, with aching feet and translucent blisters: a bacon butty. No ketchup (oh, go on then), ungreased bread, crisp fat, eaten immediately – bacon cools within seconds off the heat. No actual tomato (heaven forfend). Nothing green.
Incidentally, a butty is another word for sandwich – often used specifically to mean a bread roll or ‘bap’. Along with fried bread, a bacon butty is firmly in the Full English Breakfast pantheon, which is in itself a hangover from a less fussy culinary age – when everyone thought English cuisine was appalling and we were all terrible cooks and coated everything in lard and died at 45. Despite its damning history, bacon is properly egalitarian, and lends itself to endless permutations – it loves cabbage, carrots and peas, being crumbled over avocado, and brings depth and edge to stews and soups. Then there’s the sweetness factor. Here in California, it’s paired with maple syrup and pancakes as big as duvets, or French toast thick with apricot jam. But sandwiched between a soft cloud of dusty white bread, the fug of bacon smoke still hanging in the air; there is no bettering it.
God knows you don’t need to be told how to make a bacon butty, but here are a few tips about cooking bacon in order to achieve nirvana, and avoid greasy disappointment.
Let your bacon come to room temperature. This allows the fat to release, and ‘loosen’ slightly. Lay the bacon in a large, unheated pan. Make sure the rashers don’t overlap. Place the pan over a medium heat. Cook the bacon in its own fat – do not add any. This ensures you have a few arteries to spare at the end. Let the bacon sizzle away until crisp. Flip only once (pretend it’s steak). Drape on paper towels so some of the grease can be absorbed. Embed in the fluffiest bread imaginable. Doctor with whatever else you feel it needs. Die happy.
And now to the thorny subject of pig farming. As many – including my brother – will know who have kept pigs, it is ‘meat for the cruel months’ – quintessential autumn and winter fare. The best pork is rich and fatty, supple and succulent, and this is because a happy pig will have spent his days rootling and tootling around, snuffling for acorns and eating kitchen scraps with his mates. They are surprisingly affectionate, curious and clever. Intensively farmed pigs are to be avoided at all costs; if you were ever wondering how to shame a pig, this method would be it. Most live in concrete hell, pumped full of protein to accelerate growth and so suffocated by the lack of space, that they become atypically aggressive. No wonder their bacon turns to pink, watery slime in the pan. Beware the labels “outdoor bred,” “traditional” and “country” too – vague, pointless and dishonest. Free range and organic are the only labels to trust and always go small-scale if you can.
Bacon in LA
I have found it harder to find good bacon here, because trying to trace it to a specific farm and breed is a lot of work. And the state of California is huge – bigger than the whole of the UK – so ‘local’ can be defined as anywhere within a 150 mile radius. Taylors is homespun and family-run. I’ve heard only good things about them – friendly, helpful and they deal exclusively with local farms. It’s also in Sierra Madre, home to the world’s largest wisteria (which has already gate-crashed five backyards). Going further afield, the bacon from The Black Pig Meat Company is beautiful looking stuff: a rude pink, wonderfully stippled, juicy and clearly made with love and mindfulness. You can order online. If you are able to get to the Hollywood Farmers’ Market or the one in Santa Monica, seek out the Rocky Canyon Farms stall. It’s run by Greg Nauta, a small-scale rancher and farmer from Atascadero, California, who grows organic vegetables and raises free range cows and pigs on an open pasture. His applewood bacon is lovely, and it feels good to support him.
Foodster Jonathan Gold in the LA Weekly magazine also gives the lowdown on his favourite cuts of bacon and where to find them in LA. If anyone has any bacon-related thoughts to share, particularly if there is a gem of a butcher you would like to champion, please write in. I would love to hear your stories.