A point of difference
Published:  13 April, 2012

Everyone, it seems, is a sucker for a decent bacon sarnie. The booming bacon market bears testament to this fact, with strong sales of bacon over the last year. Around 90% of households buy bacon and, over the last 12 months, shoppers have topped up on more rashers per trip. Total bacon volumes in the 52 weeks to 19 February rose 3.1%, with values also up by 4.4% from the previous year.

Everyone, it seems, is a sucker for a decent bacon sarnie. The booming bacon market bears testament to this fact, with strong sales of bacon over the last year. Around 90% of households buy bacon and, over the last 12 months, shoppers have topped up on more rashers per trip. Total bacon volumes in the 52 weeks to 19 February rose 3.1%, with values also up by 4.4% from the previous year.

The heartening news for butchers is that independent retailers have seen a larger slice of the action over the year compared to previous years. Bacon sales in butchers’ shops rose year-on-year by 10.5%, compared to only 0.1% in 2010, with independents increasing their overall market share to 4.3%. In an industry worth £1.3bn, (according to Kantar Worldpanel), this is a gain worth having.  

The continued growth of the premium sector, with an above-average increase of 5.8% by volume or 3.7% by value, plays to the strength of the high street butchers and, increasingly, independent retailers are seeing the advantage of curing their own range of traditional and speciality flavours.

Keith Fisher, Bpex’s butchery and product development manager, and Bacon Connoisseurs’ Week’s ‘baconologist’, says there has been an explosion of exciting flavours and ingredients, smokes and cures to tempt the consumer, as well a rise in the number of butchers using innovative cures to add interest. “When it comes to bacon, butchers are in a unique position,” he says. “They can produce and promote their own quality cures and varieties relatively easily to coincide with celebratory dates, special occasions and seasonal ingredients.”

Specialist bacon producer Rob Cunningham of Maynards Farm in Shropshire says that the experimentation and customisation is the best way to produce something a bit special. “Easicures are very good,” he says, “but everyone uses them, so try to do something different — work with a local business to create a product with a local flavour, such as developing a cure using a local ale, or a speciality marmalade.”

In doing so, butchers can capitalise on the widespread trend for locally produced, artisan food, as well as creating their own unique products to help differentiate themselves within the marketplace and create a good point of engagement with the customer.

Rupert Evans of Denstone Hall Farm Shop & Café, whose ‘Old Spot Beer Mustard with Staffordshire Honey Middle Bacon’ took a prize at Bacon Connoisseurs’ Week, says this is a key advantage in drawing customers back. “If you have your own product, which you’ve produced yourself, it gives you a point of difference. Many high street butchers look like they’re selling identical kinds of bacon, which is bought from wholesalers, but if you are curing your own, you can speak volumes about it — where the pigs are from, how you cured it — and you can end up with a unique product.

“It’s a great way to engage your customer — and if the bacon is new, you can cook it up and put it on the counter to sample, which will hopefully increase sales and allow your customers to try something new,” he says.

One of the advantages, he points out, is that it is a relatively low-cost, requiring minimal investment, and experimenting with a few flitches [sides of unsliced bacon] can prove a good way for butchers to tip their toes in the water. “There’s no reason you cannot do a home dry-cure alongside the product you’re already selling, as a speciality,” he says, adding that a couple of middles in a week is a low-risk way of trying it out.

First, catch your pig...

Award-winning bacon-curing butchers agree that good bacon starts with a good pig. John Mettrick, of JW Mettrick & Sons in Glossop, says that, ideally, the meat has to be from an animal with a bit of fat cover on it. “There’s a natural seam down the back,” he says, “and if you can find a pig that’s got a seam of 5ml, that’s the perfect depth of fat.”  

As outdoor pigs generally carry more fat, many butchers use free-range pork, but this is not the option for everyone. However, butchers agree that it is important to start with a quality product as it is your main ingredient. “You cannot make something good out of a bad-quality product,” Rupert points out.

Although cures can be easily purchased from good butchers’ sundry suppliers, Rupert says the key is to develop your own flavours: “Look at the cures you’re buying in — you might want to mix two different types of cure, and experiment with different types of cure, or the length of time you’re curing for. And look at the different types of processes there are.”

However, there are some pitfalls for the unwary. Bacon curing, according to John, is an exact science and it is crucial to measure both the fresh pork and the cure meticulously to get the proportions right. “Make sure you measure your ingredients to an exact amount,” he says, “and apply it in the right way, so you rub the cure into all the pockets to ensure an even cure.

“You also need to think about the thickness of the bacon and which parts are going to cure quicker than others, and don’t necessarily cure it flat — you can cure it at an angle, so the eye-piece of the bacon will get more cure.”

As he points out, cure penetrates more quickly through muscle than fat or rind, and therefore 75% of the cure needs to be rubbed into the meat’s side, with only 25% applied to the fat side. If the middle has rind, the ratios need to be altered to around 90% to the meat side and 10% on the rind. The meat will also need to be turned every two days to ensure an even cure, as uneven distribution can result in lack of flavour, discolouration or spoilage.

John tends to use a vacuum-pack to dry-cure the pork, as he says that it saves space in the fridge and allows greater flexibility than brine tanks or open plastic trays. But he points out that it is important to make sure the vacuum-pack is properly sealed to prevent any bacterial spoilage.

Tim McCutcheon of Somerset-based Jon Thorner’s agrees: “The advantage of using vac-pack for cure is ease of handling for one thing,” he says. “There’s no drying out, so the meat maintains its consistency.”

The alternative to vacuum-packing is to use open plastic trays or brine tanks. Rupert prefers this method, as he says that the vacuum-pack can result in too much wetness, with the salt almost turning into a brine and producing a slightly wetter cure.

John also says it is important to make sure that you cure your bacon to the right length of time according to the size. Vacuum-packed meat needs to be cured for one day per half inch thickness, plus two days. The temperature is also important — it should be between 2-4˚C, as too low a temperature can cause discolouration and too high a temperature will result in bacterial spoilage. The bacon should not be exposed to too strong lighting as this can cause rancidity.

The bacon needs to be rinsed lightly before it is dried and, according to John, it is especially important to dry the meat properly if you’re making a smoked bacon, “The smoke will not cling to the bacon otherwise,” he says.  

Rupert points out that when you air-dry the bacon after it has been cured, you need to be most careful of cross-contamination, particularly to maturing beef. “That’s when it can blow nitrates around the fridge and that can get on to anything else,” he warns. “It can have a negative effect on hanging beef and turn it black, or result in mould on the beef.”

Rupert uses a separate bacon fridge, which helps solve the problem of the airborne nitrates on the drying meat contaminating other meat in the fridge. However, many butchers won’t have this luxury. “I have heard of people separating off a corner of the fridge, but there is a slight problem of airflow around the fridge,” he says.

However, he adds that the pitfalls of making bacon can be easily overcome with practice and experimentation and that the benefits far outweigh the potential problems.  

Slicing and packing

Traditionally, customers would have bacon sliced and packed to order, and many butchers still offer this service, preferring the theatricality of using an authentic old-fashioned flatbed Berkel slicer in front of customers. However, John advises that it can be more practical to get all your cured bacon sliced up at once and either pre-pack, ready for customers to buy, or store it in a vacuum-pack until you need to put it on the counter.

He says “If you work in a little shop, what you find is that, if someone keeps putting the bacon back on the slicer, you’ll end up with more little pieces than if someone sliced the whole back up and vacuum-packed it in smaller amounts to put it out on the counter in small amounts.” As well as cutting waste, he says, there are added advantages. “If you’ve got nice lean ends, you can use them straight away, putting them into quiches, sandwiches or other products.”  

Jon Thorner’s offers a combination of both pre-packed bacon and self-service. “We haven’t sold loose bacon for a while,” Tim says, “as it lends itself very well to being packaged. It’s got a long shelf-life, it looks and presents well and, when it’s in vacuum-packing, you don’t get discolouring, which you get with some other meats.”

This also lends itself well to those customers who are used to the ease of picking up a pack and find ordering from the counter intimidating. But by offering samples of new and speciality products, the smell of cooked bacon will tempt even the most reticent of shoppers. “If you can convert your customers, once they’ve tried it — a lovely crispy rind with no whiteness or moisture coming out of it — they won’t go back,” says Rupert.