The Perfect Bacon Buttie

Mother Ivy's Bay, Cornwall September 9, 2001 September is probably my favourite month. Summer’s over, the kids are back to school, we’re back to work. Yet there are always halcyon days, all the better for coming along unexpectedly and serendipitously.
Take this past weekend: after some days of unrelenting and unseasonal northerly winds, the forecast suddenly was for brighter, calmer weather. So we decided to head down to Cornwall to eke out the last of summer, camping at Mother Ivy’s for a weekend of surfing and body surfing. On arrival, we immediately headed to Constantine Bay Surf Shop to rent body boards, a wetsuit for Lydia, and mini-Malibus for the boys.
When the weather is fine, there is no better place on earth than the north Cornish coast, with its extensive sandy beaches and rugged rocky coastline. From Padstow, around Harlyn Bay, and Trevose Head to Booby’s, Constantine and Treyarnon, the land, still mainly agricultural and remarkably unspoiled, comes down the sea and the coastal cliffs and rocky shoreline give way to a succession of outstanding sandy beaches. Of course, this is Kim’s old summer stomping ground, and visits invariably bring back a host of teenage memories: campfires on the beach at Treyarnon, pints of cider at the Farmer’s Arms in St. Merryn, the ‘ugly sisters’, hanging out in the games room of the Trevose Golf Club, and many more.
Well, the surf was brilliant, and we spent some hours in the sea at Booby’s, simply frolicking in the steady rollers that surge in from the Atlantic, Bella and Lydia close in, Guy and Toby venturing out to where the big waves tubed and the real surfers were hanging out on malibus. Afterwards, we repaired to Mother Ivy’s, exhausted, exhilarated, cold and sandy. Hot showers revived us and we enjoyed basking in the still warm, lingering rays of the the setting sun, feasting on a simple outdoor meal of meats grilled over charcoal, accompanied by a rich and thick ratatouille that Kim had made earlier. Ice cold tins of lager never tasted so good.
The next morning we all arose refreshed and anticipating another fine day in the surf. But first time to stoke up with probably the finest and simplest of all outdoor breakfast foods, bacon butties.
As with all exceedingly simple foods, close attention to detail is required to achieve perfect results. Here’s how we do it. First of all, the bacon: it must be dry-cured (preferably from Bar Woodall in Cumbria) and for our taste, smoked. The best cut, I think, is middle-and-back as this allows just the right mix of lean and fat. Slices should be thickish, and the rind has to be snipped off first. The bread is equally uncompromising: no brown rolls here, it should be soft, floury white baps, nothing else will do. Other ingredients? Unsalted butter to spread on the baps and your choice of sauce (marriages have been broken over disagreements here so I’m not going to lay down any laws).
The bacon must be fried out of doors for at least half the pleasure comes from the irresistable aromas that swirl around and drive your neighbours crazy with envy and uncontrollable desire (unless they too are ‘frying up’). If you want to see the epitome of self-satisfaction and smugness, it’s the expression of someone cooking bacon outdoors on a pitch next to a deprived, baconless family. We’ve got an enormous heavy skillet that we set up over a Spanish outdoor cooker, and this allows us to cook a full pound of bacon at a time, enough to waft over the entire campsite nearly. Sometimes children wander over and just stare at that damn great sizzling skillet wistfully: we usually can’t resist and give them a nibble, or, if we’re feeling really generous and flush with bacon, perhaps a mini-buttie or two.
As for our method, we add a little oil to the skillet to keep the bacon from sticking, and keep the flame moderate. Too low and the bacon sweats and releases (especially if not top-quality dry cured) worryingly large amounts of liquid gloop. Too high, on the other hand, and the bacon can overcook and emerge as tough as boot leather. Make no mistake, close attention to the flame, as well as constant vigilance in turning the bacon, transferring less well done rashers to the hotter spots of the skillet, is absolutely vital. We Americans, of course, like our bacon to be crispy, the fat cooked entirely out, the bacon crunchy and even crumbly. Thick cut English bacon, however, does not respond in quite the same fashion as thin American streaky. Nonetheless, I still like to get the fat cooked until crunchy, but the lean of the back must remain moist and still pliable. This can be a fiendishly difficult balance to achieve.
While the bacon is cooking, the baps should be split and heavily buttered with fresh, preferably unsalted butter (never margarine or polyunsaturated spread). The butter should not be spread too evenly, for you want, when the hot bacon is slapped into the bap, the butter to sizzle and melt. You know you’ve got it right when you pick up the buttie in your hands, bite into it, and some of the melted butter mixed with bacon fat drizzles down your chin.
Now for sauce. This is, as I’ve already suggested, a matter of extreme personal preference. Some like their butties nude, that is with no additional sauce. Can’t understand for the life of me why. Other’s prefer tomato ketchup, in which case, general consensus is that it has to be Heinz. Others demand ‘fruity’ sauce (a variety of brands are available). Me, I’ve come a long way since living in Britain now for, what, over 20 years. A measure of how far I’ve come is that a) I can eat Marmite, and b) on bacon butties it has to be brown sauce, either HP (as in Houses of Parliament) or Daddy’s. No other will do. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a bacon buttie without brown sauce, well, it just isn’t worth eating. There, I’ve got off the fence about it. There’s no point in being wishy washy or trying to please everybody, is there? If you want a perfect bacon buttie then for goodness sake, do it right and have it with brown sauce.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2001

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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2001