Morinville students meet and eat their meat
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Dec 04, 2013 06:00 am
Student Shoshana Laidlaw takes a delicate bite out of a thick slice of hot, greasy homemade bacon and chews thoughtfully.
“It’s crispy,” she says, with a connoisseur’s air, “but it’s not burnt.”
It’s thicker than the flimsy stuff you get at the store, and more juicy.
“It’s very different from other bacon that I’ve had,” she concludes.
About a month ago, Laidlaw and about 20 of her fellow students at Morinville Community High School met three black, fat, happy pigs named Snap, Crackle and Pop.
The students then butchered, smoked, cured, fried and (as of last week) ate Snap, Crackle and Pop, learning first-hand how common consumer products go from farm to fork – or pig to bacon, in this case.
It’s part of a new urban agriculture course taught by St. Albert’s Neil Korotash, supervising his class in the kitchen at Morinville’s Community Cultural Centre.
“They got to meet (and pet) these pigs in particular,” he says, see how they were raised, and learn how they were processed into ham, chops and bacon.
“You ask the average person on the street what part of a pig bacon comes from,” Korotash says, “and they don’t have a clue.”
This course is meant to give people insight into how food gets made.
From pig to pork
Kyle Iseke hauls a huge cross-section of a pig out of the freezer and flops it down on a blade-scarred counter at D’Arcy’s Meat Market in St. Albert. A veteran butcher, he’s well versed in the ways of bacon and is a consultant for the urban agriculture course.
Bacon refers to meat, usually pork, that’s been cured using salt, Iseke says.
“There are many different types of bacon,” he notes, including pancetta and guanciale, with each coming from a different part of the pig and prepared in a different manner. “You can get quite creative as a butcher.”
He cuts a thick slab of fatty meat from the pig’s belly.
“That’s the bacon, right here.”
Bacon is typically made from fatty, tough, less tasty parts of an animal such as the belly or cheek (and sometimes the back, which is also good for chops). By curing and smoking it, you enhance its flavour and make it more valuable as meat.
Korotash’s students got their pigs from Karen and Ron Sobey’s Belle Valley Berkshires Farm near Riviere Qui Barre.
Both lifelong farmers, Karen says they switched from a 250-pig feedlot to a smaller, six animal free-range outfit a few years back when pork prices crashed.
Pigs raised in feedlots are very susceptible to coughs and colds due to their living conditions, as they live in cramped crates over metal grates with their waste piling up on the concrete below, she says.
“Pigs are rooting animals. You can’t root if you’re in a concrete pen.”
The result is a lot of hazardous methane and unhappy pigs.
Karen says she and Ron raise their pigs outdoors so they can run around, roll in the mud and rest on hay.
“If you’ve got a happier animal, it’s a better tasting animal,” she says.
Berkshire pigs are one of the oldest breeds around, dating back to the 1800s, Karen says.
“They’re very docile, very easy pigs to work with,” she says, and unlike traditional white or black pigs, like playing in the snow.
Berkshire pig meat is far more marbled than that of other pigs, Karen says, and has a natural sweetness.
“They should have some pretty good bacon from this.”
Pigs are normally raised for about six months before they reach their sell weight of about 260 pounds, Karen says. Snap, Crackle and Pop had a guest stint at Fort Edmonton Park a few months ago before being sent to slaughter in October.
The three pigs met their end at Bon Accord’s Country Quality Meat Cutting – one of a handful of local slaughterhouses.
Staff kill the pigs with a bolt gun, which strikes the animals in the brain, says co-owner Ingrid Pestana. Workers then skin the pigs (some slaughterhouses use a steamer for this), slice open the belly to release the guts, wash the body, and hang it in a cooler for two to three days.
From pork to products
Guided by professional butchers, Korotash’s students chopped their pigs into more manageable pieces using knives, hacksaws, cleavers and (occasionally) an axe.
Knife skill and anatomical knowledge is vital here, Iseke says, particularly when it comes to knowing what parts are good for what foods.
“It’s a true trade.”
After slicing the pig bellies into chunks, Laidlaw says, they massaged the chunks with a carefully calculated mix of salt and sugar and kept them in plastic bags for about a week.
This is what’s known as curing, a form of preservation that uses salt to dry out the meat, killing harmful bacteria, Iseke explains.
“The main ingredient is going to be your curing salt,” he says – typically sodium nitrite or potassium nitrate. These nitrates and nitrites keep the meat pink as it cooks, add flavour, and allow you to cook the bacon at low temperatures without the risk of botulism.
Those chemicals make bacon and other processed meats notorious, as they have been linked to various cancers and premature deaths. A March 2013 study in BMC Medicine of 448,568 Europeans found that people who ate more than 160 grams of processed meat a day (about two sausages and a slice of bacon) were 44 per cent more likely to be dead in 13 years than those who ate just 20 grams a day.
Still, Iseke (and the aforementioned study) note that bacon is safe so long as you don’t eat much of it.
“Bacon is fatty, it’s salty, it contains nitrates and it’s delicious,” he says.
You can cure your bacon in two ways, Iseke says. The Morinville students did a dry cure – a process by which treated meat is left to age for months in a cold room so that bacteria can change the flavour of the meat. Meat cured this way is safe to eat, even uncooked. (The students did an abbreviated version of this process as they didn’t have months or a cold room.)
You can also do a wet cure by submerging the bacon in a salt-sugar solution for about a week, Iseke says. This way is faster, but requires you to cook the bacon afterwards. This is the process used for standard store-bought bacon.
The Morinville students took their meat and put it in a smoker for a few hours. The smoker applies heat with an electric coil and smoke from smouldering wood.
The heat – typically at least 72 C – cooks the bacon, Iseke says, while the smoke particles add flavour and kill bacteria on the meat. The flavour you get depends on the wood used – the Morinville students used applewood.
The bacon comes out of the smoker as thick, golden brown slabs of meat that are white and pink on the inside. You can eat it at this point, Korotash says, or bake or fry it if you want to get rid of some of the fat.
The tasty rewards
The students fry and sample some of their bacon, savouring its taste. They soon have about 150 pounds of the stuff to take home, as well as hunks of ham, piles of pork chops and racks of ribs.
Local food gives you options you can’t get from store-bought stuff, Iseke says.
“I can tell you where this pig was born and raised, where it was slaughtered,” he says. “I can tell you all of the ingredients that go into that bacon and I can change those ingredients if you give me a special order.”
Knowing how your food is made can also help you make more informed choices about your diet, he adds.
Student Anthony Nault says seeing all the time and energy that goes into food gives you a new appreciation for it.
“I think a lot of people are desensitized to it,” he says of food production. “If more people actually understood how pigs were raised and butchered … they wouldn’t give it such a negative view.”
So how do Snap, Crackle and Pop taste?
“They taste very good,” Laidlaw says.