Wednesday, 10 December 2014

HESTON'S BACON

I purchased some bacon in Waitrose a while ago, a bacon which has been developed by one of the most gifted and well respected British chefs in the world, Heston Blumenthal.

I've loved and respected Heston and his ethos, ever since the days when The Fat Duck still had a domestic gas supply in the kitchen. But I've still not, after all this time, made the pilgrimage to Bray to feast on his Parsnip Cereal and Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet  (only wearers of the emperor's new clothes and tedious restaurant critics mention the S**** P*******).

Julie and I were lucky enough to dine at Dinner by Heston not long after it first opened.

These were the days before the countless aforementioned restaurant critics and food writers started banging on about the Meat Fruit and Pineapple Tipsy Cake. These perfect dishes, through word of mouth, have now established themselves as signature dishes, elbowing their way onto centre stage like James Corden hosting The Brit Awards on dextroamphetamine. Ashley and Heston were planning a menu that changed with the seasons. As far as I'm aware, the Meat Fruit and Pineapple Tipsy Cake are still on the menu 3 years later.

Discovering such heavenly treats yourself, and stumbling upon such edible treasures without having the surprise spoiled by the pink Glenmuir jumper brigade who went to the soft opening, is so much nicer than going in filled with expectations.

Expectations, can really bite you on the bottom.

I'm a bacon junkie and a ham connoisseur, addicted and well versed in all manner of porcine pleasures. I'm the Sal Magluta of salted swine. I grew up in a town that had a Harris Bacon factory for Pete's sake, enough to both educate AND put you off piggy for life. So, when I placed all three permutations of Heston's bacon into my oven, my expectations were pretty high. Surely Heston knows a thing or two about delivering a rarefied rasher.

Growing up in Totnes, Devon, in a town with a handful of good butchers shops (sawdust on the floor and whole pigs were fascinating to me as a boy) and a bacon factory is enough to give anyone the 1000-rasher stare. When I was a nipper, there was a Harris Bacon shop just across the road from the huge red brick Harris Bacon factory, and I have fond memories of my mum taking me in there to stock up on bacon, which the shopkeeper would slice fresh from the cured loins on a big scary slicing machine, not a vac pac in sight.

Mum would also take me to the fishmonger in the Butterwalk to get me my favourite treat of smoked haddock, which as a child I called "Yellow fish". My mum knew the importance and lasting effect of salty foods on a young boy's mind. The salt police still a twinkle in their evil creator's minds.

Until a few years ago, one of my regular go to bacon guys was John Reade. John was the real deal, the sort of ruddy-cheeked, booming-voiced, journeyman/master craftsman of marbled meaty marvels that were once commonplace in every village and town from Trethewey to Thurso.

Since John retired, I lament and crave his skill and bravery with salt. His gammon, whether it was a heafty horseshoe joint, slow-cooked in nothing but a pan of water at Christmas (that's right, just water, sue me you cinnamon stick and star anise-using lemmings!), or thick-cut as a steak and fried in Devon butter with a couple of eggs, is the stuff of my dreams.

John's bacon was the sort I expect you would've been served if you had breakfast with Bilbo Baggins at Bag End. I am a creature of habit, and John's rashers more often than not ended their days in a perfect ternion of dishes. Bacon and Fried Egg Sandwich, Egg and Bacon Pie, and the criminally underrated and long-forgotten Fidget Pie.

My late mother swore by fidget pie, and her version graced our family table on a very, VERY regular basis. I can't imagine life without fidget pie, and I'll carry on making it like mum did, in the very same battered old pie dish she used until my last.

I still get some of my bacon and ham from Riverford Farm Shop,  which is where John used to run the butchery, but since he handed over the reins to the younger chaps, the lipsmacking salinity and intense old-fashioned piggy-ness seems to have been dulled. Maybe the boys are just too bleddy scared to add that extra scoop of salt to the cure. Don't get me wrong, It's still a fine fine bacon, but it just feels tamer. I'm well aware that these proper, old fashioned butcher's bacons and hams aren't to everyones tastes. Generations have been indoctrinated into the world of reformed, cheap pink protein, ersatz pap filled with hygroscopic chemicals and all manner of dodgy additives. Not nice. Even my fellow gourmand and parter in crime Baz struggled with proper piggies. I once got John to cut me some really thick gammon steaks, fresh from his brine tubs,  which I chargrilled over wood in the garden one warm summer evening, served with a roughly chopped fresh pineapple, honey, mint and chilli salad and some buttered pink fir apple spuds. My mate Baz couldn't finish his gammon steak as it was too salty for him. Wimp!

Wherever and whenever I find a proper artisan bacon, I have to try it. I've loaded up my coolbags with rashers from Tywardreath in Cornwall and Darragh O'Shea in Knightsbridge, a delightful old boy at Bath Farmer's Market who's name I can't remember. My friend Giuseppe sells the fattiest, well-peppered pancetta which he travels deep into the hills of Calabria to pick up from a little old Italian farmer, who lives so deep into the mountains, according to Giuseppe, that he doesn't even speak Italian. Each December I stock up on my man Illtud Llyr Dunsford's jaw droppingly lush Welsh collar bacon and Ventreche. Illtud is godlike in his skill and understanding of cured pig.

If I see a bacon that looks like it'll give me the horn, I can't refuse it. You know the hillock of cocaine scene at the end of Scarface, that's me when there's proper bacon on my plate!

I've tried a few of Hest's Waitrose products since he and Delia started getting paid, and I have to say the times I've been bowled over have been few and far between. The Steak Pie with Kombu was ok-ish. The Salted Caramel Popcorn was on a par with the Bobby's foods Toffee Popcorn. Incidentally, I used to run a newsagents in the 90's, and we stocked an impressive selection of Bobby's products, so I know my stuff. I was particularly enamoured with the Bobby's Caramel Break.

I've tried Heston's Prawn Cocktail which is quite nice, unless you hate vanilla with your prawns, and the Royal Wedding Trifle he knocked out for William and Kate was nothing compared to me'Julie's Sherry Trifle. When I spotted his trio of bacons my heart told me to trust good old Heston to deliver me to the saline shores of bacon nirvana, whilst my head told me to either get a grip and walk away, or move my hovering indecisive hand left to the Duchy Streaky, down to the Devon Rose, or right to the Denhay Smoked Back.

I like Heston, so wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was as I reached for the packets that I realised these weren't Heston's take on the traditional, but something altogether more experimental. If you're of a sensitive disposition, do not read the next five words.

Heston's Tomato Ketchup cured Bacon.

I know what Heston was thinking 'cause it was emblazoned all over the packaging. What though, was I thinking? Tomato Ketchup cured Bacon. I should've walked away then and there, but somewhere deep inside of my brain's central bacon cortex lay hope. I also thought I'd try the Vanilla Bacon, and the Syrup and Stout Bacon.

Forgive me, for I know not what I do!

Forgive Heston, for he has sinned!

What would this triumvirate of sliced pig experimentation taste like. Would they be perfectly salted? Would they, could they taste as good as the epiphaneal bacons of my life? Would the fat crisp exponentially faster than the meat like it does with my usual go to rashers? Would it be the best bacon I've ever eaten? All these questions and more went through my mind as I patiently waited for Heston's rashers to come out of my oven.

As I tasted the Tomato Ketchup cured Bacon, I thought to myself "What kind of fresh hell is this?"

To cut to the chase, all three bacons were lacklustre, criminally underseasoned, ill-judged, too lean, and utterly utterly disappointing. If it is possible to reverse engineer the curing process so that every atom and flavour molecule vanishes upon cooking, I reckon H has cracked it. Heston is like Alan Turing when it comes to cracking the code of how to make bacon taste of nothing, 'cause cracked it he certainly has.

What did I expect though?, that maybe Heston had personally reared the most genetically perfect, well fatted uber pig like it was his own child? Sleeping by it's side night and day, giving it an Indian head massage and feeding it acorns every time it stirred from it's pampered slumber. That he'd gone diving off the Cornish coast and hand picked and analysed hundreds of batches of seawater, and then stayed up for 6 weeks with Clockwork Orange-style lidlocks on his eyes to help keep him awake, whilst using a hairdryer to evaporate the seawater into the perfect sized salt crystals with which to cure his piggy slices.

Obviously not, why on Earth would Heston have a hairdryer.

I'm certain there are lots of Waitrosees that swear by the stuff, probably the same people that know Heston from his Channel 4 output. I'm sure that these people wouldn't ever head to one of his outposts in Bray or London. They probably think there is little or no point in driving all the way to The Fat Duck when you can simply open the fridge and tuck into a pot of his Prawn Cocktail, or just pop one of his pies in the oven, "they've got Kombu in them for extra umami don't you know"

They're just as disappointing as his bacon.

I love you Heston, but stop peeing around with the Waitrose development team and make me a bacon Sandwich with some proper bacon. It's not too much to ask is it.

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