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You’re Bacon Me Crazy!

15 June 2009 2,310 views No Comment

A couple weeks ago, I overheard a new friend, Brian, talking about bacon to fellow food blogger Logan of Boots in the Oven. My ears immediately perked up and I asked what this bacon talk was all about. Turns out, Brian’s brother Greg Bass cures and smokes pork belly at home and gives portions of bacon to friends and friends of friends. The Austin Chronicle referred to Greg as an “extreme bacon hobbyist” in an April story about local restaurants curing their own bacon.

Greg and Logan met at a hog-butchering class taught by Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due. Jesse encouraged Greg to make more of his own bacon after sampling an early batch and Preservation Bacon was born [Correction: Jesse suggested Greg make his own when he asked where to get good bacon. The trigger for making it happen came from the stories he heard from his grandpa about the food on their farm growing up.]

pb_02I e-mailed Greg a couple weeks ago asking if I might purchase some of his bacon and come visit and photograph his operation for the blog. He told me that there was an extra large batch of bacon curing at the moment and that he would be smoking it in several batches over the next few days. The next step would be to slice it all up to order and hand it out to folks on his mailing list over the next week.

I ordered three pounds of bacon and arranged to pick it up that Sunday at around 1 p.m. Folks usually pick up their order at Greg’s house between 1-5 p.m. on a Sunday. He recommends ordering 1/4″ slices — about four times as thick as most big business bacon, but will cut it to any thickness requested.

bacon not cookedAt the appointed time, Adam and I stopped by Greg and Laura’s wonderful home just north of Hyde Park. They have a great eye for design and small touches like a fold-down wooden shelf in the kitchen for cookbooks make their cottage so charming. We headed to the gorgeous backyard with their two sweet-tempered labs in tow.

Standing next to the smoker, Greg gave us an overview of the process as he removed some pork belly from the grill. He divides each pork belly into four parts before curing and smoking — so the below picture is almost two bellies worth of bacon goodness:

smokerSince the bacon comes from naturally raised hogs, each strip is unique in size, shape, thickness and fat distribution. When I ordered, Greg had sold out of his “100 Mile Hog” from Richardson Farms ($15/lb), so I went with “Happy Belly” from Niman Ranch ($10/lb.).

We went inside where we hung out eating samples of freshly smoked pork belly and greeting Greg’s customers as they stopped in to pick up their orders. The meat was rich, flavorful, smokey, and wonderful. It was the kind of food that makes you stop cold in the middle of a conversation so you can close your eyes and enjoy the moment.

yumOne of his customers, Stephen Aechternacht, e-mailed me after we met at Greg’s house: “I’m truly addicted to Preservation Bacon…Greg is an inspiration. I’ve encouraged him to find a commercial kitchen and grow his business. If he could get in to Central Market and/or Whole Foods, I think, with clever merchandising, this stuff could fly out the door.”

After hanging out for a while, we paid Greg (check out his awesome wallet) and headed home.

walletWe kept one pound of the Happy Belly — the other two were for my colleagues. On Monday, Adam made bacon and eggs and Greg’s wonderful bacon takes a little longer to cook due to it’s thickness. I ended up running late for work but it was worth it — this food deserves my time!

Greg’s cooking instructions? “Cook it low and slow.” We cut the pieces in half and cooked them over low heat, flipping frequently. Coming off the burner, I was amazed at the amount of grease left in the pan. Greg calls this “bacon nectar” which we saved in a glass jar for a later cooking project. You can use the grease to cook eggs, saute onions/garlic, etc. If you’re like Willie Nelson, you can use it to gas up your car too!

bacon fryingThe next evening, we invited friends over for Spaghetti Alla Carbonara. Feeling that Greg’s bacon deserved other high quality ingredients, I stopped off at Pasta & Co. on Kerbey Lane to pick up the spaghetti and some fresh Parmesan cheese. Dinner was fantastic and using products from two small local producers made it all the more special. Next on tap will be homemade BLT’s with locally grown heirloom tomatoes (in season in Texas right now).

pasta before eatingAt a local grocery store the other night, I noticed that higher quality bacon meats were around $10/lb. In my opinion, the time, thought, and love that goes into Greg’s Preservation Bacon make it worth much more than he is currently charging.

I also checked out a video about mass produced bacon. The bellies are hung in a liquid smoke shower to flavor and color the meat. There is no days of curing and natural wood smoking. They even use a microwave for one step of the process. A microwave, people!

Pork belly has been cured and smoked at home for centuries. The bacon our grandparents ate had great taste and was made with responsibly farmed pigs. Greg and other small-batch extreme bacon hobbyists are bringing that experience back and closing the huge gap that disconnects us with the food we eat.

happy pigsOther options for locally-cured pig fare include: Vespaio, Enoteca Vespaio (amazing brunch), Olivia, Cipollina, Uchi, Roy’s, ASTI, FINO, parkside, Hudson’s on the Bend, Cissi’s Market, Jeffrey’s, and TRIO at the Four Seasons (courtesy Austin Chronicle).

Check out the slide show below for more mouth-watering bacon-related food porn:

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