Inside, we were greeted by Ed Hick who is supremely enthusiastic about all things porcine - and the traditions of ye olden days when your great granny was on the scene (you had to be there...). He talked us through the basics of pork production and the history of Hicks from back in the days of black & white to today. Ed explained what pork curing is and the two different methods of curing it - wet and dry. Here comes the science bit...
Wet curing is when you mix salt with water to create a brine which the bacon sits in - a little salty bath, if you like. Dry curing is when you treat your bacon like a supermodel and rub the dry mix into the skin, which is then wrapped up and left in a cool dry spot to soak it all in. There was lots of science talk of osmosis and the like but at this stage, my non-technical brain completely tuned out (apologies!).
Our talk took place in the production area so there were lots of metal bits, sharp objects and steel tables surrounding us - a bit like an episode of Bones, but without Booth. Ed then produced some fine beechwood smoked rashers - some of which he cooked on a hotplate and some which he passed to us in their raw state so we could have a feel & a sniff.
We had a quick natter about whether cutting the rind made a difference to the finished rasher - this was something we were taught to do in Home Ec class in school to make the rasher prettier and stop it curling up. I believe it does make a slight difference to the taste as well, but I could just be delusional!
The raw rasher was very dry to the touch, unlike some of the soggy damp supermarket vacuum pack offerings I've cooked in the past. It had a slightly golden tinge to the rind and edge from the smoking process and it smelled like a peat fire with a lovely aromatic odour. Soon, the rashers on the hotplate were cooked and there was a scrum to taste them - the whole "ladies first" principle was blatantly ignored as the men in the group elbowed us out of the way!
Once they had been consumed, Ed took us on a tour of the factory, showing us the smoker and the walk in fridge which held stacking crates of curing bacon which they rotate during the curing process, so every piece gets a turn in the liquor, which is what the liquid released by the meeting of the meat and salt is called.
Ed also showed us the brine mix for wet curing bacon. Just like yoghurt or sourdough bread, it's best to have a "starter" brine which is guarded between curing. Some brave souls had a little taste... me, I kept my hands firmly in my pockets for that!
Then it was time for us to play - it was time to start Makin' Bacon baby (if you say it in an Eamon Dunphy/Apres Match accent, it's even funnier...). We grabbed a metal container which we had to weigh empty & take a note of the weight : this all makes sense later, I promise. Ed then brought out two gorgeous loins of pork which he portioned in 7 pieces so we all had one each, weighing at least 1kg. Then it was time to weigh the pork in the container (hygiene tip) and subtract the container weight from the pork & container weight, to get the actual pork weight. This was important as there was a specific formula you needed to follow to get the weight of the curing mix correct - too much or too little would ruin the pork.
Somebody found a calculator and the adding up & multiplying began in earnest... The curing mixture is comprised of salt, saltpetre and sugar and it worked out at 34g of the mix per 1kg of meat - my piece of pork needed 36g of mix, which I weighed out and poured onto my pork.
Rub a dub dub, prime pork in a tub...
Now it was rings off time as our next job was to rub the mix into the pork until not a trace remained in the container... the meat got the massage of its life!
Ed then vacuum packed our meat for us and labelled it with our names so there would be no squabbling... and also gave us a 300g bag of the curing mix (enough for 10kg of Christmas ham perhaps) and a large bag of woodchips so we could smoke the meat at home.
So, how much did this little experience cost? Just €40 per person, including the bacon, the curing mix and the woodchips. It's a fantastic way to introduce you to pork and bacon curing and I'd highly recommend it. Incidentally, Hicks also run a sausage workshop (which I'd love to attend), so check them out.