This is the best bacon in the world. OK, it’s probably the best bacon in the world. It’s certainly the best bacon I’ve ever made. Look at the fat on it. Not to everyone’s hypersensitive taste, perhaps, but such fat, white as hoar frost, pure and delicate. And the pale tracery of meat running through it. Crisp, crunchy, the definitive fragrant shaving of bacon. Technically, it’s cured cheek rather than belly, but there’s a school of thought that believes that the cheek is the best bit of the pig anyway. The ratio of fat to muscle may be unacceptable by contemporary standards, but the meat is all the more sweetly flavoured for it.
The Italians would call this guanciale, and that was how I first came across it, eating with Giancarlo and Ilde in Piangepane in Emilia-Romagna a few years back. Giancarlo’s recipe was agreeably simple. “I get fresh pig’s cheeks and bury them in a tray of salt for eight days. You must tip the tray at a slight angle so that the water runs away from the meat. After eight days I add fresh salt and leave it for another five days or so. Then I wash off the salt, take off the skin, slice the cheeks like this’ – he indicated about two centimetres – ‘and freeze them until I want them.’
The first time I tried making guanciale out along Giancarlo’s lines, the results put me in mind of Lot’s wife, who, if you remember, was turned into a pillar of salt. It was mouth-puckeringly salty, and I like salt. A process of trial and error, basically reducing the salting time and improving my desalination techniques, plus the odd tweak here and there, has resulted in the best bacon in the world. Probably.
It makes sense to do 2 or 3 pig’s cheeks at a time. The cheeks freeze very well once cured. You can vary the spice mix according to your own fancy. Below is how I fancy it today. Tomorrow, who knows?
3 pigs cheeks, skin on
1 kg cooking salt
t tsp all spice
1 dsp black pepper
1 star anise star
1 dsp juniper berries
Tidy up the cheeks with a sharp knife, and get rid of any white/pinky/grey nubby bits, which will be glands. Wash the cheeks and dry. Spread a good layer of salt in a glass dish or on a metal tray. Put the pig’s cheeks on it and cover with the rest of the salt. Put away somewhere cool for 7 days, tipping the dish/tray at a slight angle. After 7 days wash off the salt, and then leave the cheeks in a bowl of cold water over night. It won’t harm the guanciale to change the water a few times, if you remember, but don’t worry if you don’t. Take out of the water, and dry very thoroughly. Grind or crush the spices. Cut out 3 rectangles of butter muslin, substantially larger than the cheeks. Lay one at a time out on a table. Sprinkle 1/3 of the crushed/ground spices on the first rectangle. Place the cheek on top, and wrap the muslin around it. Twist the top and bottom and tie with string. Make sure the muslin is kept in place, using another piece of string if need be. Hang up in a cool place for 14 – 21 days. The cheek should feel dry and quite dense but not hard. Now it’s ready to eat. You can eat it as it is, freeze withoug slicing it until you need it as some future date, or freeze it sliced to whatever thickness you fancy.