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Issue 41 - Ayrshire bacon

Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008

 

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Ayrshire bacon

Sue Lawrence provides some more delicious Scottish recipes.

Breakfast in Scotland is worth getting up for, since it is something we do exceedingly well. From porridge and Finnan haddock to smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, this is a meal that showcases some of Scotland’s finest ingredients. And although there are endless recipes for black pudding and sausages, kippers and porridge, there is only one recipe for Scotland’s bacon: the Ayrshire cure.

And so when I went to Carluke to see Andrew and brother John Ramsay’s shop, I was keen to find out why. Like the Wiltshire cure, Ayrshire bacon is brine-cured. But whereas the Wiltshire bacon sides are cured with the rind on and bones in, the Ayrshire sides have the rind off and bones taken out.

The origin of bacon in Ayrshire was as a by-product of the important dairy farming in the area (Ayrshire milk is still some of the country’s best). And although this specifically Scottish cure began centuries ago, Ramsay of Carluke is the only butcher producing it traditionally by hand from start to finish, on such a large scale.

But bacon starts with the pig. And it was the Ramsay brothers’ great-great-grandfather who, in 1857 began curing bacon from his home on a farm in Carluke, having spent his previous working life tending the Duke of Hamilton’s white cattle in Hamilton. And although the Ramsay’s free-range pigs (Large White-Landrace cross) are reared in Perthshire, the farmer John Neil delivers the pigs a couple of times a week to the Ramsay’s own small abattoir beside the shop in Carluke.

After the one and a half hour journey, the six month old pigs are slaughtered humanely and quickly. They are skinned, boned and trimmed, and brined for a day. Then they are drained and matured for about two weeks.

The water content of the finished bacon is zero, so this is not bacon that splutters out milky liquid as it fries; rather, it crisps up nicely, giving a true lingering flavour and good firm bite.

The other distinctive feature of Ayrshire bacon is the rolling technique to produce ‘Ayrshire Middle,’ often just referred to as simply ‘frying-bacon for breakfast.’ This characteristic rolling means that each slice of bacon ends up with the lean back bacon surrounded by streaky bacon: a succulent round slice with just the right ratio of gleaming white fat to lean meat.

The question of whether to choose smoked or unsmoked (‘green’) bacon is interesting: the sides are smoked above hardwood chips for between five and six hours – or left green.

The preference throughout Scotland, according to Andrew, varies regionally, with the smoked bacon being first choice of the traditional fishing areas of Scotland, as they are used to the flavour of smoked fish.

As well as the famous Ayrshire bacon, Ramsay’s also produces black bacon to a very old recipe using local ale and treacle. It also experiments with more modern cures, a current favourite being garlic and cracked pepper, but the most popular choice is always the traditional Ayrshire.

Watching the sides being sliced and packed, I also saw plenty of offcuts and trimmings from the cutting. Of course when I asked the usual question from a thrifty Scot I was told the trimmings are not wasted but are cubed then packed and sold like pancetta.

Ayrshire bacon is extremely versatile: of course grill it and serve at breakfast, but also use it in quiches, salads, sandwiches, soups, stews, creamy pastas and comforting risottos. It is not only very tasty, it is also an indispensable ingredient.

And so, thinking back to my question of why there has only ever been one Ayrshire bacon cure, it is obvious. Because it is so good, why change perfection?