The history of bacon is an international affair, many countries throughout history have cooked slices of salted/cured pork and called it bacon, but very few nations have elevated bacon into an art form in quite the same way as the British and when researching the history of bacon, it is to Great Britain, Anglo-Saxon culinary traditions and the English language that we must first look.
The word 'bacon' historically originated in the modern English language but, like a lot of English words, its etymology is slightly more complicated than that, etymologists are still arguing over its origin.
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 used to refer to a traditional cut of pork meat unique to the Great Britain at the time.
What the English were historically calling bacon 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 our continental cousins seemed happy to refer to any slice of salted/cured pork as bacon.
In Old High German they called it bahho, which is derived from the Proto Germanic bakkon, in Old Dutch they called it baken and in Old French 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 rest of the world decided to settle on the English version and spelling of the word.
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 historic English town of Dunmow 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 and patience.
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 in the middle ages you can easily imagine that the person saying it may have actually said it literally, historically the English peasant diet included bacon as it was a relatively inexpensive kind of meat compared to other cuts.
The history of bacon curing is a story about the growth of bacon as an 'industry', leading up to the end of the 18th century, the way bacon was cured and produced was notably different to the way is was done by the 19th Century. Before the industrial revolution, bacon was traditionally 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 also had their own secret recipe, if you lived in London you had access to a wide range of bacon brought in from different parts of 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.
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. 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.
In the 1770's an an Englishman called John Harris (the forefather of large scale industrial bacon manufacturing) opened his company in the English town of Caine in Wiltshire, at that time many pigs were imported from Ireland and driven in droves from Bristol on the west coast of England.
Wiltshire was a regular resting places for herds of swine and was thus assured of a constant supply of pigs for curing. John Harris opened the worlds first commercial bacon processing plant in Wiltshire, a place considered by many to be the bacon capital of the world. Wiltshire has its own unique method of curing pork, which they achieve by curing 1/2 pork sides in a secret brine curing solution, a method which became known as the "Wiltshire Cure".
The "Wiltshire Cure" method produces a low salt sweet bacon that is sought after all over the world.
Any nation with access to a wild boar throughout history has enjoyed some kind of "bacon", but they probably did not call it back bacon and it probably did not look like it belonged in an English breakfast.
In outlining the history of 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.
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. In Great Britain the Yorkshire and Tamworth pig breeds are bred specifically for bacon and referred to as 'bacon breeds'.
If you are interested in history, heritage and recipes of the traditional English breakfast, check out our official English Breakfast Handbook, lovingly produced by the English Breakfast Society.
© 2021 Guise Bule. All rights reserved.