Back to tradition
Published:  07 April, 2011

Virtually everyone loves bacon — even vegetarians will acknowledge it as a guilty secret — so it is no surprise the total market is worth more than £1.27bn. However, butchers account for only a tiny fraction of those sales, with a market share of around 3.5% and value of £32.5m a year.

Still, that kind of money is hardly to be sniffed at, but with the supermarkets dominating the sector, is there room for butchers to carve out a little growth for themselves?

Speciality is key, says award-winning butcher David Lishman, who runs Lishman’s of Ilkely. “I think the way forward for butchers is to become more and more specialised. Supermarkets have a great way of achieving things, but we can do a much better product. It’s quite important that we always be a lot better and more innovative.”

The mainstream bacon category is certainly an area that has become heavily commoditised, but with consumers becoming more discerning across the board, we have seen a growing demand for more premium bacon products.

Cheaper supermarket bacon often disappoints, says Douglas Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association. “People don’t like the white scum left in the pan when they cook supermarket bacon and that’s where butchers are scoring.”

Dry-cured bacon with a strong sense of provenance is proving a hit with consumers, and butchers are often best placed to deliver a more traditional product.

And, most butchers agree, traditional means not trimming off the fat. John Pettit, of John Pettit Butchers in Grimsby, says: “The bacon that’s on offer in the supermarkets is too lean — it has had all the fat trimmed off it. So it’s not a good product, it won’t eat well.”

But, he says, it is important to strike a balance: “It’s better to have a more traditional product, with good confirmation and a good covering of fat, although not too much. We look for 22mm of fat on the pigs we get, and we reject any with less.”

David agrees: “We do a lot of quite old traditional types of bacon, with more fat on, called a farmer’s bacon. If you remember having bacon at grandma’s, it’s totally different to what you get now. We’re making proper old-fashioned bacon that fills the kitchen with smoke!”

Adding a touch of the theatrical is also a good idea, David says. “We use an old slicer in the shop, it adds a bit of theatre. People come to us because we slice it there in front of them.”

Slicing in-store allows customers greater control, picking the thickness of their bacon — something not readily available in the  multiple retailers.

However, do not forget to cater for the more timid customers, who prefer the convenience of pre-packed, warns Andrew Edmonds, who runs Bradwell Butchery in Great Yarmouth, which took the title for East of England in MTJ’s Butcher’s Shop of the Year Awards.

He recently had a store refit, which included the fitting of multi-deck fridges for the first time. Previously, customers would have had to ask for bacon from the butcher, but now they can help themselves. “We’ve put bacon on multi-decks for people to pick up themselves and we’ve seen a good rise in sales,” he says.

Andrew cures his own bacon, and has been doing so for nearly 20 years. He says this brings a number of benefits to the business. “It works really well and allows us to maximise carcase utilisation — we buy whole pigs in and we always need trim for the sausages. We used to be crying out for legs of pork, but now we sell more shoulder and loin and we rarely have to buy in any trim.

“I generally have around six whole pigs in for bacon and, sometimes, we’ll have as many as 10. Christmas was mental and we did around 80 pigs from the middle of November.”

He says if they did not cure their own bacon, they would struggle to sell the loins, so it is essential for the business to have a strong bacon offer.

Curing your own gives you a great deal of control when it comes to quality and customers preference, says David: “There are different ways of hanging the bacon longer, to allow the flavour to develop further. You can create a different type of taste by hanging it longer.”

But butchers cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to bacon. During the recent Bacon Connoisseurs’ Week, Bpex held a ‘Savour Your Bacon’ competition, which saw Morrisons walk away with the top prize for its Butcher’s Style Ayrshire Middle Bacon, despite strong competition from the independent sector. The best independent product was produced by Cranston’s Quality Butcher for its dry-cured back bacon.

John Pettit, who was the promotional week’s ‘Baconologist’, says its difficult for butchers to go head-to-head against the supermarkets. But he points out that by curing your own, you can often compete on price.

“We put an advert on the front of the local paper comparing supermarket ‘best’ product prices with our own. Morrisons’ was about £5.89/lb, Sainsbury’s £5.28/lb, and we’re about £3.95/lb, and we’re still making a healthy profit from that, so butchers can compete on price with the top stuff in supermarkets.”

Curing your own bacon also allows you to be more creative, and butchers have the added value of being more flexible than their larger competitors. Keith Fisher, Bpex butchery and product development manager, says: “Butchers are in a unique position, in that they are able to introduce new cures fairly quickly compared to processors and multiple retailers, without the need to develop new packaging and labelling. Celebratory varieties can be introduced to mark occasions, events and seasonal trends, to generate interest and sales.

“Certainly, we have seen the number of different cures increasing through our competitions to mark Bacon Connoisseurs’ Week (21-27 March 2011) and at the regional product evaluation events for butchers. This year the ‘Savour Your Bacon’ competition saw over 230 entries across the categories, of which the standard and variation in flavours was incredible.”

While the opportunity to develop new flavours and cures is there, most butchers urge caution on bacon. David Lishman says: “Bacon is quite a traditional product and we tend to look in old recipe books for older cures. You can be creative without being too wacky. With sausages, you can add all-sorts, and people say you can with bacon, but I think you need to be more traditional with it, and not go too far.”

Sweet cures can work, however, he says: “We have a Yorkshire black cure, which is cured with black treacle, and that’s very popular. The sweetness goes well with the saltiness of the bacon.”

Pettit also urges caution when being creative with your cures: “You need to get flavours that compliment and don’t overpower the product — and I’ve seen some diabolical ones.” He particularly warns against the over-use of garlic!

If you are going to develop unusual cures, he recommends working from a strong standard base and introducing new varieties under a bacon of the month promotion mechanic.

Curing your own bacon and slicing it to order, all add to the attraction for buying bacon from a butcher, and David urges his fellow retailers to get out from the back of the shop and show off their skills: “We’re the experts in this trade, we’re the artisans and craftsman, but if it’s all done in the back people won’t see it, and we need to be telling people we’re the experts and craftsmen.”

The great thing about this renaissance in traditional skills, is that all of this is beginning to have a great effect on the bacon market for butchers. Far from being surrendered to the supermarkets, butchers are once more starting to hold their own on bacon, says Scott: “Bacon is a very important market for butchers. The more discerning buyers go to the butcher for steaks and something special, and bacon is starting to come into that. It’s becoming a reason to go to the butcher.”

Baconologist’s guide to bacon
Grimsby-based butcher John Pettit was signed up by Bpex to be Bacon Connoisseurs’ Week’s ‘Baconologist’. Here he presents a rough guide to the various cures and cuts.

Bacon cures
Dry Cure
This is the oldest method of curing. Traditionally, farmhouses would adopt their own, distinct recipe, apply the ingredients to the meat and hang it in the inglenook above the fireplace. Dry-cured bacon was also a key ingredient in the rations sent aboard ship for long-distance sea journeys.
Today, traditional dry-curing still involves a
time-consuming process that requires each cut of pork to be hand-rubbed with a sea salt-based mix (to ensure a delicate flavour) and then cured for at least five days (depending on the size of pork). The meat is then matured and air-dried for up to 20 days before finally being ready to eat. The dry-curing process expels water from the pork, which means that the bacon shrinks less while cooking and should not exude any ‘white bits’ in the pan.
This method creates a product perfect for
the traditional cooked breakfast or the iconic
bacon sarnie.

Traditional Wiltshire Cure
The original and most famous of the ‘wet cures’, the Traditional Wiltshire Cure dates back to the 1840s, when the Harris family in Wiltshire, the country’s most prominent bacon-producing county, developed what at the time was considered to be a revolutionary cure. In the 21st century, the process still involves the side of pork with its bone-in and rind-on being immersed into a special recipe brine for up to two days. In accordance with the traditional Wiltshire method, the bacon is given a fortnight to mature, and time – after salt – is the most important ingredient.
This cure produces bacon that works well as a recipe component, as its slight saltiness helps to draw out the flavours of the other ingredients without dominating them.

Maple Cure
This involves the addition of maple syrup to the curing mixture – either as part of the external rub, as in the case of a dry cure, or as an added ingredient to the brine in the wet-cured version. The rich syrup is then drawn into the meat during the curing process of up to five days, giving the bacon its distinctive sweet caramelised flavour. The cured bacon is then often smoked to add an increased depth of flavour.
This creates a bacon that is an indulgent,
mouth-watering treat and makes it more suitable as the centrepiece of the meal, rather than as an ingredient, where it could swamp other flavours.

Sweet Cure
Sugars of varying kinds, such as muscovado, demerara or molasses, are the dominant feature of sweet-cure bacon. Spices such as juniper are also sometimes added for extra flavour. The curing process follows the same key principles as for the basic dry or wet cure, but the addition of sugar as the leading feature of the cure results in
mouth-watering, moreish bacon with a
flavoursome aroma and smoky, syrupy notes.
A popular bacon, Sweet Cure will help to elevate any meal such as pasta or pizzas.

Smoked Bacon
Smoking is not a cure in itself. Rather, it is the smoking process  that occurs after the bacon has been cured to give an added flavour hit. While smoking can now involve coating bacon in a ‘smoke flavour’ liquid to gain the authentic flavour, quality smoked bacon is usually produced in the more traditional fashion of smoking over wood chippings. Of these there are many variations, such as cherry, applewood, beech and hickory, to name but a few. One of the most popular is oak-smoked.

Bacon cuts
Streaky bacon
Streaky bacon, comes from pork belly. It can be quite fatty, with the layers of fat running parallel to the rind and meat. A popular favourite, it is tasty and best grilled.

Middle bacon
Middle bacon, from the side of the pig, after streaky and back bacon, is an economical buy, a great breakfast favourite, and a great choice for those who like both streaky and back bacon as what you get is some of each.

Back bacon
Back bacon comes from the loin in the middle of the back of the pig. It is a very lean, meaty cut of bacon, with less fat compared to other cuts. It has a
ham-like texture. Most bacon consumed in the UK
is back bacon.

Collar bacon
Collar bacon is taken from just below the neck of a pig, and can be sliced into rashers too.

Hock, from the ankle joint between the ham and the foot, is great for casseroles, soups, pies and mincing.

Gammon, from the hind leg, traditionally ‘Wiltshire-cured’ is a lean meaty cut and a prime joint for boiling, braising or roasting. Gammon rashers or steaks are also cut from here, which are excellent grilled or fried.