The History Of Bacon
Many countries throughout history have cooked slices of salted/cured pork and called it bacon, but very few have taken bacon and elevated it into an art form quite like the British have, when discussing the history of bacon and specifically back bacon it is to the united Kingdom of Great Britain and the English language we must first look.
The History of The Word Bacon
The word ‘bacon’ is a word that historically originated in the modern English language but, like a lot of English words, its etymology is slightly more complicated than that and etymologists argue over its origin.
Although the English bacon tradition dates back to the Saxon era in the 1st millennium AD, bacon (or bacoun as it was spelt then) was a Middle English (11th/14th Century, High/Late Middle Ages) term that the English seem to have settled on in order to refer to a traditional cut of pork meat unique to England at the time.
What the English were historically calling bacon (or bacoun) at the time referred to a specific cut of pork belly and pork loin and mostly cut from breeds of pig that had been specifically bred to make what we now call back bacon.
The rest of the Europe may have had the same genetic type of pig, but historically they seemed satisfied to refer to any slice of salted/cured pork as bacon. In Old High German (O.H.G.) they called it bahho, which is derived from the Proto Germanic (P.Gmc.) bakkon, in Old Dutch (O.Du.) they called it baken and in Old French (O.Fr) they called it bacun.
Looking back at the history of the word bacon, you can completely understand why etymologists argue over its origin, but what is clear is that the English definition of bacon at the time was traditionally defined and it is this definition of bacon that we use in Britain today.
The rest of the world now uses the English word for bacon and so you can expect to find bacon in many parts of the world, even if it is not traditionally cut back bacon. The word bacon stuck rather than any other version of the word.
Bringing Home The Bacon
You have probably heard the phrase “bring home the bacon” and assumed it had something to do with bringing home money, when in actual fact it was first said in 12th century england in the spirit of matrimonial harmony.
A church in the English town of Dunmow, Essex promised a flitch (side) of bacon to any married man who could swear before the congregation and God that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. A husband who could bring home the bacon was held in high esteem by the community for his forbearance, self-control, patience and ability to serve an English breakfast.
What was then the town of Dunmow, became the town of Great Dunmow which still holds The Dunmow Flitch Trials every 4 years and awards a flitch of bacon (a salted and cured side) to married couples if they can satisfy the Judge and Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors that in twelve months and a day they have not wished themselves unmarried again.
The phrase bring home the bacon later evolved into meaning generate household income, but sometimes the person saying it may have actually said it literally, historically the European peasant diet included bacon as it was a relatively inexpensive kind of meat compared to other cuts.
The History of Bacon Curing and the ‘Commercialisation of Bacon’
The history of bacon curing is a story about the growth of bacon as an ‘industry’, leading upto the 18th century the way bacon was cured and produced was notably different to the way bacon was cured and produced by the 19th Century.
Before the industrial revolution bacon was traditionally raised, cured and produced on local farms. It was also very commonly produced at home by your family, a large percentage of the population of pre-industrial Britain kept pigs and even those who lived in the city kept pigs in their basements (until the practice was outlawed in the 1930′s) for sustenance.
Since the Saxon times the English have bred pigs domestically as a source of bacon and breeding pigs was traditionally a seasonal affair. Pigs were born in spring, raised in the summer, fattened on acorns (in the great oak forests that Great Britain used to have) in the autumn and then killed in the winter to provide meat for the family.
Each family had their own secret recipe for curing and smoking bacon and in the cities they bought bacon from butchers who bought bacon from farms that had their own secret recipe, if you lived in London you had access to a wide range of different bacon taste sensations from across Great Britain.
The sheer variety of bacon, sausage and black pudding that you could purchase from different regions of Victorian Britain created an almost golden age for the traditional English breakfast connoisseur who could enjoy a wide selection of familiar breakfast porks all cured and smoked in different ways.
Traditional Dry-Cured Bacon
Up until the 19th century bacon production was localised to rural communities and then bacon was distributed to the nearest towns and cities for retail sale, almost all of this bacon was cured using the traditional dry-cure method.
Dry-cure bacon is the Society favorite, is the way we think that bacon should taste, its the way bacon used to taste traditionally and something you must be lucky enough to appreciate if you really want to fall in love with the English breakfast.
The dry-cure method does take longer than other cures and requires more labour to produce than modern curing techniques which is why dry-cure bacon today is usually more expensive than commercially produced bacon. Using the dry-cure method bacon is cut and rubbed with salt by hand before being cured and then smoked according to the producers ‘secret’ recipe, the regional producers who still produce bacon in this traditional way offer the English breakfast connoisseur an opportunity to bring diversity and tradition into the modern English breakfast.
Today traditional dry-cured back bacon producers are a dying breed, but during the height of the Victorian empire Great Britain was in bacon heaven.
Genetic History of Bacon
Any nation with access to a wild boar throughout history has enjoyed some kind of “bacon” before, but they did not call it back bacon and it probably did not look like it belonged in a traditional English breakfast.
In outlining the history of back bacon we wanted to avoid outlining ‘the history of the pig’, but it is interesting to note that whilst modern day domesticated breeds of pigs may all descend from the wild boar, they do differ genetically depending on where they were originally domesticated. When discussing the history of bacon, genetics matter.
Analysis of mitochondrial DNA samples, taken from geographically diverse breeds of domesticated pig indicate that in Europe we produce our bacon using breeds of pig that have a regionally unique genetic lineage and in Europe almost of all the well established national pig breeds are genetically descended from the same ‘European’ boar which is genetically very different from the Asian or American boar.
The pictures above are of a European wild boar caught in Northern Spain by one of our members and the English Breakfast Society can tell you from experience that wild boar bacon tastes nothing like traditional dry cured back bacon.
Other parts of the world with a history of indigenous wild boar populations produced their own genetically unique breeds of domesticated pig and therefore use a different kind of pork to make their bacon, we believe this contributes to the reasons why bacon can taste and look so differently in other parts of the world.
The history of bacon is not just about the cut of the meat, its also about the genetic lineage of the pig and arguably when it comes to the history of making bacon, the most blue-blooded of all bacon lineages come from England, with its centuries old history of breeding lines of pig specifically to make what the world now calls back bacon.