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Bacon Mania

Bacon, I’m lead to believe was invented by the Chinese, who salted pork belly to aid it’s keeping around 1500 BCE. Before the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s bacon was generally produced on local farms and in domestic kitchens, pigs were routinely kept in basements and cellars until a law was passed outlawing the practice in the 1930s. The process for producing bacon up until the late 1700s in Britain was known as Dry Curing, that is rubbing the pork with salt and other dry ingredients known as a Cure. This process was time consuming and the cure took quiet a long time to produce the desired results.

Enter John Harris the owner and driving force behind the world’s first commercial bacon processing plant. That sounds rather grand, as in fact it was a shed behind his shop in Calne in Wiltshire that he opened in 1770. John and his descendant created a bacon dynasty, employing more and more mechanical and scientific processes.

So bacon had been around for a long time and most people in Britain would have tasted it or at least known what it was. However with the advent of the Victorian middle and upper middle classes, bacon in terms of the product we know today joined the ranks of Quinoas, Pomegranate Molasses, Tofu, Seitan, Buttermilk and all the other ingredients adopted by on trend foodies.

Back in the 1800s bacon was dry cured for up to 2 weeks to aid it’s keeping qualities, however this rendered it very salty, as well as time consuming. John Harris’ company had developed a liquid Brine cure which cut the curing time by more than half and produced a less salty, sweet bacon. In essence, the middle classes loved this new flavour and adopted the ubiquitous rasher as their own and went mad for it.

The average weekly figure per head for bacon consumption in 1880 was around 705g. That roughly equates to a double pack of bacon per person per week. Demand started to outstrip production and prices started to rise, leading many entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Harris had the advantage of his company being based near to the place that thousands of pigs were rested as they were herded between Bristol and London, giving him a readily available supply of pork. Those pigs that remained were destined for Smithfield market and it was here that many of these new businesses set up.

Bacon stoves were thrown up all around the area where Cowcross Street and St John Street meet. It became the only business carried on in Peter’s Lane and Greenhill’s Rents. Despite his strategic location in Calne, Harris saw the opportunities that being in London near to Smithfield market would bring and so set up a factory at 6 Cowcross Street, however competition was strong and he never really gained the bacon monopoly. This was taken by two enterprising brothers, John & Thomas Boyd, who established small units in every local court and alley as well as buying up all the existing rival units. One of these was located at 46 St John Street which is probably the only surviving reminder located in what is known today as Smokehouse Yard.

The Boyd’s hold on the market was so great that they became known in the Press as the first “Bacon-And-Ham Millionaires“, but this was short lived, as a gargantuan concern had it’s eye on the British market.

Towards the back end of the 1890s the Danish Bacon Company moved into the building in Cowcross Street which became known as Denmark House, part of which sits on top of John Harris’ original factory. Over a very short period they established themselves as the market leader, but they weren’t the only large bacon company in the area. Just across the road the company of JD Links had their factory which could handle around 6,000 sides of bacon per week, and further down the street near to Farringdon underground station was Webbers, who were turning out a similar amount of sides per week.

Although Danish Bacon moved its headquarters to Welwyn Garden City in 1938, the business continued at Cowcross Street until the 1980s, the smoke-houses being pulled down in 1984. Links too stayed until the 1980s, when their premises were replaced by offices.

I’ll have to take a look next time I’m in the area to see if there’s an establishment that serves up a good bacon sandwich.

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