Guanciale: The Lost Art of Face Bacon

It’s that time of year again when the garden is quiet and memories of summer whisper through the food and preserves we have put away in an attempt to extend the harvest as long as we can. It is also the time of the year that I call up Fred DeMartines and put in my annual order for half a pig. After a long summer of foraging wild foods, grazing pasture and putting on a nice thick layer of fat, the free-range, heritage pigs at Perth Pork Products are ready to make a permanent home in my freezer.

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Perhaps more than most things we eat, meat has become an absence in our food system. Wether you eat it in nugget form, pink slime, or even packaged in its styrofoam tomb, the meat you get at the grocery store comes plucked, shucked, boneless and processed to the point where the animal and the idea of the animal no longer align. And this is for good reason. The supermarket doesn’t want you to think too hard about where your meat came from. They rely on what Michael Pollan calls the “supermarket pastoral” to conceal the fact that meat production shares more in common with the assembly line that put your phone together than the pastoral image we have of the typical farm. Our insatiable desire for “cheap meat” has created an environmental nightmare. The livestock sector is now the top two or three of the most significant contributors to a whole host of environmental problems that include climate change, deforestation, and land and water pollution.

But this does not have to be this way. If you are worried about how we are going to feed the billions of people on this planet, than everyone has to eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kilograms of meat a year, and Canada doesn’t lag too far behind at just under 100 kg. From an environmental standpoint, eating less meat is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. It’s better than switching from a gas guzzler to a Prius, and has a lot of positive effects on your health and the wellbeing of the animals within an industrial system that treats living creatures as if they were machines. Before I became a locavore, I was a vegetarian for about a decade, and now I practice a weekday vegetarian diet, and the meat I do eat, comes from a handful of farms.

And this is what I want to talk about. I’m not going to try to convert you to veganism or shame you into abandoning the pleasures of meat. I actually want to encourage you to face your meat directly, to get to know it a little better, and hopefully in the process, to take responsibility for your impact on the world. There are many benefits to buying directly from a farmer. When I talk to Fred, we sometimes spend an hour on the phone discussing specific cuts, flavouring for the sausage, and what I want and don’t want to receive.

When you buy a half or whole animal, you have the option of getting everything. And I mean everything! At first, the thought of receiving pigs ears, trotters, and kidneys was a bit strange. As I said, I was a vegetarian for years, so the skinless, boneless package of pink flesh in the grocery store offers a sanitized, almost deathless experience to the consumer that is easier to deal with. If you like sausage, you are in actuality eating many of the offcuts anyway. They get mixed with preservatives, stabilizers, are often washed with ammonia, but as the cliche goes, snouts, tails, and sphincter all make it to the soup pot eventually.

Something amazing happens, however, when you have to deal with these things directly. You realize how much of the food we eat is culturally determined and how much possibility is wasted on the squeamish. Who decided that pork chop is superior to cheek meat? And what do you do with the face? Easy, you make face bacon, an absolute delicacy that most of you will never have the opportunity to try unless you delve into the lost art of guanciale. This is not a product carried by your typical, or even your high end butcher. This is something you will have to do yourself.

Face bacon ready to go

Face bacon ready to go

Guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is one of the simplest cures for an amateur to make at home. The jowl is relatively thin and thus you are more likely to cure it all the way through to the centre. Once you get over the initial shock, for you can indeed tell this is part of the face, it’s relatively easy. I have had pieces that still had bits of hair on the skin. Didn’t someone tell piggy its rude not to shave before you are the guest of honour at dinner?

Unlike bacon made from the belly, face bacon contains a high ratio of collagen to fat, and this is what makes it so unique. The flavour is incredible. You don’t smoke the bacon, so there is a very earthy porkiness to it. No, this isn’t the kind of bacon you fry up with your eggs. This is the dream bacon you need to make the most incredible Pasta Carbonera you have ever had, and I am not exaggerating. People have told me that I changed their lives after tasting it. My daughter begs me for bacon pasta almost every week, but I try to save it for special occasions, as you will see in the recipe below, this is a rich meal.

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

Because of the high collagen content of the jowl, guanciale looks very strange when you fry it. Low and slow is the name of the game and you cut it into cubes which slowly render down, releasing the precious collagen that will thicken the sauce, creating the most velvety, rich, and smooth Carbonera you have ever tried. Carbonera made with the traditional eggs, cream, bacon and parmesan is great, but the texture and flavour you get from guanciale is simply unparalleled.

There is a brutal and twisted efficiency to industrial meat. Every part is used in some way, even if that means MRM (Mechanically Reclaimed Meat). Now that I have tasted face bacon, however, I am saddened that the jowl is wasted as filler for some horrible, processed sausage, for this delicacy should be experienced by everyone. Ultimately, this is one of the best reasons to buy straight from a farmer. When you face your meat directly, you have to account for the entirety of the animal. Transforming those nasty bits into a delicacy is one of the most profound acts of translation that cooking allows us to engage in. From nature to culture, from decay to delicacy, when you cook from whole, you learn to think differently.

Like countless generations before us, respect and responsibility is made possible by treating every part of the animal as sacred. If you are a carnivore, then you owe it to yourself and to the animal that has given its life for your sustenance, to utilize every bit. I know that Fred treats his animals with respect. He raises them outdoors, slowly, and uses heritage breeds that are on the verge of extinction because they do not fit the industrial model well. These are animals that grow “too slowly” or react poorly to confinement. These are animals that have not been bred to conform to the horrors of the Intensive Livestock Operation. Ironically, the survival of these breeds depends on people eating them.

Much of the flavour of Fred’s pork comes form the respect he has for what it means to be a pig. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, awarded Fred the status of Master of Pork, an honour reserved only for those who truly understand that raising an animal is an extension of your worldview. That respect manifests in the pork, and I try to do the same when that pig becomes a part of me.

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 Home Cured Guanciale

guanciale ready to hang

Adapted from  Michael Ruhlman’s excellent Charcuterie book

2lb/ 1kg pork jowl

70grams kosher salt (7% of meat weight)

70 grams sugar (7% of meat weight)

15 black peppercorns

1 large bunch of thyme

2 bay laurel leaves

4 juniper berries

Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discard the stalks, and finely chop. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.

Using a sharp boning knife or pairing knife remove any glads from the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under some fat.

In a large tupperware, or zip lock bag combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Rub the cure into the meat on all sides thoroughly. Seal the bag, or the tupperware and pop in the fridge for 7 days. On day 3 redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again.

guanciale bags

After 7 days the meat should feel firmer. Take it out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might well stick to the meat and fat, that is fine - just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.

Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F 75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two.

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guanciale skin side hanging

You will know when the jowl is cured because it should feel firm to the touch. The fat will feel softer than the meat, that is fine.

Once cured it should keep in the fridge easily for a few weeks, or frozen longer. You can keep it hanging at 55F and 75% humidity too if you wish - the meat might well harden more, but it will develop an even stronger flavor.

Pasta Carbonera

carbonara sauce

Boil your favourite penne pasta, or better yet, make some fresh pasta.

Saute 50 grams bacon per person slowly until the collagen has rendered out and small crispy bits start to appear

Toss in zuchinni or asparagus or mushrooms and add a good grinding of fresh pepper, enough for heat.

Season with a small bunch of thyme or Italian herb mix.

Take off heat and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, mix 1 egg yolk, 25 ml of cream, and small handful of parmesan per person. If you are using guanciale, you do not have to use as many egg yolks. For 4 people, I would use 2 egg yolks. If you use belly bacon, use 4 eggs.

Drain penne pasta and toss with the meat and vegetable mixture. Once the heat has subsided add the cream mixture and toss until silky. The key here is to mix the sauce while the pasta is off the heat. If everything is too hot, the eggs will scramble.

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