With all but the hardest news eclipsed by the Olympics, a little story slipped by almost unnoticed last week: bacon is Britain’s favourite food. The report comes from a public poll of 2,000 people, and even though not the most scientific of studies – there is no apparent evidence of socio-economic or geographical spread – I’m with them on this one. A bacon butty really is one of life’s great pleasures.
How well I remember as a radical, drum-beating vegetarian (I was 16 and very earnest) the aroma wafting from a pan of sizzling bacon driving me bonkers. I never gave in, though, despite the frequency with which it appeared on the breakfast table, and my mother’s reprimand for being, in her opinion, “so daft”.
Why even vegetarians are tempted
Oh really? Have you ever wondered why frying bacon tempts even the staunchest of vegetarians? I wish I could tell you it is something lyrical and romantic but, quite simply, it is a chemical interaction in the meat.
According to Elin Roberts, science communications manager at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, it is not the brown sauce, the bread, or even the bacon which sets the taste buds drooling but something called the Maillard reaction. That’s the reaction between amino acids in the bacon and reducing sugars in the fat.
She says: “Meat is made of mostly protein and water. Inside the protein, it’s made up of building blocks we call amino acids. But you need some fat. Anyone who’s been on a diet knows that if you take all the fat from the meat, it just doesn’t taste the same. We need some of the fat to give it the flavour.”
On that I will agree with her.
She goes on to explain that the Maillard reaction releases hundreds of smells and flavours, but it is the smell that reels in the eater. “Smell and taste are really closely linked. If we couldn’t smell, the taste wouldn’t be the same.”
Without denying what Ms Roberts has to say, and no matter how Maillard works its magic on my slice of porky goodness sizzling in the pan, that alone does not the perfect bacon butty make.
What does is this:
- Hunger. (Hangovers are optional.)
- The place, which, when the desire strikes, can mean just about anywhere. It is almost rude not to eat bacon on a Sunday morning (preferably in bed), outside in the rain if camping or at a festival – and on holiday, especially in the UK.
- White sliced, bread (sorry), as brown is just too assertive. The thickness of sliced white is in correct proportion to the thickness of a bacon rasher, so contains the bacon without swamping. Also, since it has little flavour, does not distract from the porky taste. The bread should just be lightly smeared with butter or, better still, mucky fat (see later).
- The bacon can be streaky – fattily delicious and my preference – or back, and smoked or not. But it must be from outdoor-reared, preferably organic pigs.
- A current favourite comes from Denhay and is cured with sea salt then smoked. There is no shrinkage in the pan, no ‘white-stuff’, just well flavoured, juicy bacon. Buying the best you can afford really does pay off with bacon.
- Fried not grilled (and never in the microwave, even though Marco Pierre White swears by it). Yes, I know this will set the health police screaming but frying several slices in the same pan requires little additional fat as the bacon renders its own. And, when the edges of the bacon caramelise with the frying, it creates that most delicious extra flavouring for the butty, mucky fat.
- With brown sauce not tomato. And to drink on the side, tea.
- Finally, it must be on a plate and with a paper napkin.
What do you think? Any comments? I await the fierce defence of toasting the bread and grilling the meat, of ketchup, maple syrup, marmalade and mayo (I have tried them all) but this is my perfect butty. And, after years of denial and torture watching others devour the holy trinity of bread, pork and fat, nothing will shift me.