Salt pork is bacon’s quiet, old fashioned cousin. Taken from the back as well as the belly, cured like bacon, but not smoked, it is a fundamental part of our heritage too. Yet Bacon, so hip and widely adored, has been trending for years now, on menus everywhere, famous with its own blogs, bandaids and paraphernalia. Meanwhile salt pork seems less sexy, almost forgotten about in fact, despite its storied history.
In my kitchen however, it has made a comeback over the past few years. I never thought I’d say it, but move over bacon, if just ever so slightly please.
I was recently cooking up a feast of moose, wild hare and partridge and so naturally reached for the salt pork. Wild game needs fat.
By the way, if you are ever lucky enough to be given such a treasure by a hunter, don’t screw it up by cooking it like farmed meat. I learnt this lesson years ago when I moved to the country as a young city chef, eager but too confident, and suffered several humbling experiences with tough-as-a-plank goose, and dry-as-a-carpet partridge.
The secret to edible wild game is long and slow cooking and lots of fat – pig fat, duck fat, butter, something. With hare or bear, bacon seems to be a natural, but with more delicate partridge, I choose salt pork. And sometimes, you don’t want your moose to taste like bacon either. Salt pork delivers the necessary lubrification, lending a more subtle savoury piggy taste, remaining in the background.
I first warmed up to salt pork over a traditional Quebecois recipe that François showed me when we first started working together -têtes de violon ‘facon bas du fleuve’, a lime green coloured mix of fiddleheads stewed with onion and salt pork that isn’t pretty but absolutely delicious, addictive even. This recipe simultaneously broke down my prejudice against cooking green vegetables past the aldente stage and woke me up to the possibilities with salt pork. At the time, I was particularly inspired by old fashioned Quebec cooking, so I soon realized I better stock up on the stuff. Happily, I had lots of extra fat on hand since we deal in whole carcasses.
Flip open any old Que cookbook such as Lorraine Boisvenue’s ‘Le Guide de la Cuisine Traditionelle Quebecoise’ or pick an elder’s brain and you’ll see, salt pork comes up in just about all the recipes, be they meat or vegetable dishes..
As I got down to making my new staple, I found out that the back fat of a milk-fet piglet makes salt pork that tastes like butter. Sliced thin lardo like, many people enjoy it straight up. Personally, I prefer cooking with it.
Salt pork is the perfect winter ingredient with its hearty touch. Adding a slice or slab to any pot like you would a bay leaf will kick up a pot roast, braise or ragout, making it ultra satisfying, while your guests wonder what magic you have up your sleeve.
It so happens that pig fat is a natural for wild greens too. As bacon sings in a bitter green salad, salt pork takes the edge off any green vegetable and works magic on beans. It is great in soup (say fava bean or green pea, lettuce or potato) playing the same role as a ham bone does in split pea soup, but again when you want body or piggy flavour in the background without too much smokiness.
I just cut all my fine pig trim into strips and cure it like I do duck proscuitto by tossing them with coarse salt and spices for a couple of days (similar to bacon but without the sugar and less spicing). Then I rinse, pat dry, sous vide and freeze for future use. Or you can buy salt pork at any butchers or supermarket for nothing.
Sooner or later, when you tire of bacon, why not try a little salt pork. You’ll discover or rediscover a major element of ‘cuisine de grandmere’, the ultimate comfort food condiment that feels so good at this time of year.