Bringing home the bacon

Categories: Features

Cannon & Cannon Meat School takes Mark Riddaway on a journey in pursuit of perfect bacon

It’s not unusual for me to feel a hankering for bacon on a Saturday morning, especially after a couple of Friday night beers. But that craving has never before been satisfied quite like this. I’m attending one of the regular hands-on classes at the Cannon & Cannon Meat School, tucked away at the back of Borough Market.

It’s an atmospheric little space, with trains rumbling noisily overhead. Piles of bacon sandwiches sit on the side. A pot of strong tea stands brewing. And the gory heads of four dead pigs gawp blankly at us from across the room.

Today, as well as eating and making bacon, my five fellow students and I are going to be staring into the dead eyes of these once proud and beautiful mammals, thinking quite hard about where our food really comes from. And then eating more meat.

Pigs’ heads have become something of a symbol of the Meat School: a sign that what happens here is both educational and utterly unvarnished. The heads show up in several of the classes, but this morning we’re using them to make Bath chaps.

Bath chaps

The city of Bath
A speciality of the city of Bath, these consist of a pig’s cheek muscle—a rich, red puck of lean meat—rolled within the fatty bed of facial tissue to which it is attached, then cured and (often, but not always) hot smoked.

Aprons on, the six of us gather round our tutor, Hugo Jeffreys of Blackhand Food—a chef, turned baker, turned small-scale producer of some of the finest charcuterie ever hung up to dry on this island.

Hugo, a hugely engaging presence, stands behind one of the disembodied heads and gently slaps its voluptuous cheeks. “You guys are lucky,” he says, grinning. “Today, we’ve got some really cheeky pigs. Usually Gloucester Old Spots have quite thin cheeks. I don’t know what this lot have been doing.”

This is a traditional rare breed, perfect for charcuterie. “I can only use rare breeds,” says Hugo. “They grow more slowly and put down more fat, and fat is essential for what I do. I simply can’t work with intensively reared animals, even though they’re cheap.”

A good cause
The animals he sources are between nine and 12 months old, whereas most pigs sold commercially have been slaughtered after no more than four months. Our friends on the tabletop have at least had a life—and died for a good cause.

The air in here smells pretty good, thanks to the vast quantity of bacon sandwiches provided by Lee-Anna, the almost comically hospitable Meat School coordinator, who clearly lives in fear that at some point in the future someone somewhere might feel hungry.

But the first step in Hugo’s demonstration means that things aren’t going to smell quite so great from now on. “First things first,” he says, “you can see the head is pretty hairy, and you don’t really want hairy chaps.” Then he picks up a blowtorch. The acrid smell of burning pig hair rather reduces the rustic charm of our surroundings.

Things remain pretty horror show for the next step too. “Personally I like to take the ears off first, so they’re not flapping around everywhere,” says Hugo. To anyone with a real respect for animals, but particularly to a charcutier, there is no such thing as an off-cut.

Bath chaps in bowl 

A good, crispy snack
“You should definitely take the ears home,” insists Hugo. “Cut them into strips, cover them in butter, some salt, maybe some breadcrumbs, then stick them in the oven at a high heat. They make a good, crispy snack, particularly with beer.”

Next, Hugo shows us how to remove the Bath chap from the head. Like all skilled artisans, he has the ability to make complex movements look ridiculously easy, but unlike some, he is able to very clearly communicate what he’s doing.

Pretty soon it’s our turn. I’ve been feeling a bit on edge since the heads first appeared, but at the precise moment that the butchering of an animal’s face shifts from being a philosophical concept to being a practical task, any sense of squeamishness melts away like rendered fat. All I care about now is getting it right.

We cure our chaps using the salt box method, which involves thoroughly dunking your meat in a box of salt, using herbs and spices, chilli peppers, and demerara sugar from the Market. We’re left to make our own blends while Hugo explains the difference between curing salt and normal salt (it contains nitrites, which help with the colour and flavour and help inhibit bacterial growth).

Perfect breakfast ingredient
We break to wash the gore from our hands, drink some tea and think about what we’ve just done. Then Hugo appears with a whole side of a pig and explains how we’re going to turn this massive hunk of meat into the world’s most perfect breakfast ingredient, kryptonite of vegetarians, up-lifter of a million pasta sauces, salads, stews and stuffings.

Straight away, I learn something new. I always presumed that bacon came from a very specific part of the anatomy: back bacon from a small area of the back, streaky bacon from a small area of the, erm... streak? But no. In truth, there’s not much of this magnificent slab of pig flesh that isn’t perfect bacon material.

Together, taking turns to help, we begin the process. Charlie is up first, pulling away the tenderloin, a long cylinder of lean meat that runs along the top of the rib cage. Removing it requires no knife skills, just strong thumbs. Charlie’s expression is that of a very happy caveman.

I’m up next, peeling away at the flare fat, like pulling old wallpaper off a wall. The next part, removing the ribs and the spine, requires rather more skill. Philip steps forward. He proves to be a dab hand, removing this entire skeletal structure with admirable precision.

Meat School

Alien mass
From what was previously a rather alien mass of bone and muscle, there now emerges a deeply familiar shape. Seen from the side, the top half of this large rectangle of meat is the shape of back bacon. Draw a line down the middle, and the bottom looks like rashers of streaky.

Like a roomful of doctors, we still have lots of curing to do, so we head back to the piles of salt, sugar and spices, which we smear all over our bacon, ready for it to be vacuum packed.

After we’ve all washed our hands one last time, Lee-Anna takes a quick break from slicing salami to open us each a beer (she is real, I swear), while Hugo shares embarrassing stories about his first attempt at making charcuterie (“the pancetta came out just covered in mould...”).

We then taste a seemingly endless selection of the magnificent pork products that he makes in his small Hackney facility and sells through Cannon & Cannon: lardo, nduja, several salamis, some entirely unmouldy pancetta. It’s pretty inspiring stuff, given he only started two years ago. Part of me wants to walk straight out into the Market to buy a whole pig and a massive bag of salt.

A silk purse
When I leave a little while later, full of pork and beer and bonhomie, between what I’ve eaten and what I’m carrying I probably haven’t got much short of a whole pig on my person anyway. The bacon will sit in my fridge to cure for five days, before being consumed in just about every meal I eat for a couple of weeks.

The pig’s tongue I’ll slow cook, maybe with some Chinese spices. As for the pig’s ears, I’m thinking maybe a silk purse. After what I’ve done today, anything feels possible.