“I’m out to cure the ills, not cause them.” – Martin Raubenheimer finds himself in a pickle…
“During my formative years I linked the meat that I love so much to the contented animals that I saw grazing in the veld and scratching around on the “werf” of family farms. This led me to believe that the world was filled with caring carnivores. Then I grew up and reality bit. I got a job which took me to factory farms owned by “big business brains”. I know it’s claimed that feeding on the flesh of animals for well over 2 million years has increased the size of our brain but in recent times it certainly seems to have done the exact opposite to our hearts.
On these industrial size enterprises I witnessed how the wholesale production of cheap commercial meat in the pursuit of maximum profits has become, in the words of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, nothing short of “an ignominious expression of greed, indifference and heartlessness.” It was time to take a good hard look at my purchasing habits and focus on a more thoughtful, ethical and holistic way of life. No more “dirty meat” for me. It became my mission to seek out and support small local producers and hunt down naturally reared animals for the pot.
I found a group of genuinely ethical farmers who were more than happy to open their hearts and homes and allow me to experience first-hand how their pasture-based healthy meat is produced, slaughtered, processed and sold. Now I could sleep easily when it came to the welfare of the animals and just as importantly, because they don’t stuff them full of growth hormones or antibiotics, these suppliers can vouch for the wholesomeness of the meat.
Mission accomplished and fired up with enthusiasm, I signed on for a charcuterie course, built a smoker, got hold of some lovely “clean” pork and started makin’ bacon. My instructor, a highly respected local charcutier’s dry cure recipe called for a small quantity of pink salt (sodium nitrite) but I wasn’t keen to add this. My meat was pure and I wanted everything I made to be as natural as possible. So I consulted my hero Hugh’s book and was pleased to see that according to him all you really need for curing, whether you’re smoking or not, is coarse sea salt, brown sugar and a couple of herbs and spices, exactly what I wanted to hear.
I was pretty chuffed with my first few efforts and after some encouraging comments from friends and family who’d acted as guinea pigs, I decided to start a little business so that I could share all this goodness with a bigger circle of likeminded Eco-warriors. This has turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made – everyone has been so positive and I feel like I’ve found my calling in life. Both the fresh cuts and my lovingly hand-crafted cured products have enjoyed so much support that I’ve been able to grow both my small business and that of my suppliers, and all this in pretty tough economic times.
But there’s been this one niggle that just will not go away…the threat of botulism. This toxin is considered one of the most poisonous substances on earth and can lead to paralysis of the muscles of the face and limbs and even cause respiratory failure. In the doyen of charcuteirs, Michael Ruhlman’s book he states categorically that “It is critical to use sodium nitrite in order to prevent the potential of botulism poisoning in food that is smoked or sausage that is air dried.”
My bangers are made from fresh meat so this doesn’t apply but I smoke my bacon and so I began to grapple with the question of “to add or not to add”? I’d found a new mission – to establish conclusively whether I would be placing my customers at any kind of risk by not adding nitrite to my bacon.
Delving deeper into the topic of saltpetre, pink salt, cure #1 & 2, Prague Powder, Lucas Cures and all the other names for nitrates and nitrites, produced some interesting anomalies. For instance when you see “No preservatives added” this doesn’t necessarily mean “nitrate/nitrite free” because in South Africa the law requires these to be listed as curing agents not preservatives. Even when something says ‘nitrate free’ there could still be nitrite added. Semantics I know but that’s how it is.
I explored the idea of using “natural nitrates” found in veggies, such as celery, spinach and lettuce. Celery juice is often added to “natural/organic” bacon overseas, but what’s the point? You’re still adding the same thing and, as with the preservative story, calling it something else doesn’t change anything. More importantly, because you can’t be as precise in your measurement you’re very likely to either add far too little for it to have any effect or far more than necessary.
Hoping that Hugh’s disciples would support his contention and allay my concerns, I posed the question on the River Cottage’s website forum. Imagine my surprise when the replies came back; “Nitrites are only there for one reason, to prevent the growth of botulism”, “for me the choice is botulism or no botulism” and “from a food safety perspective nitrates and nitrites are there purely as a robust measure to prevent the growth of botulism which can occur even without the presence of oxygen.”
There’ve been those who’ve placated with, “Ag, it’s all nonsense you don’t get botulism any more” and “if you cure the meat properly (which I do) it’ll be fine.” Someone pointed out that, “the old people never used that stuff and they were fine,” and that’s what I thought too, but then my mom unearthed my great-grandparent’s bacon recipe and it called for saltpetre (a nitrate). I chatted to a customer who’s a GP, about my dilemma and her view was “Frankly I’d rather you used the stuff, one shouldn’t take chances with botulism.”
Recently I met a student doing postgrad research into the health hazards caused by consuming unsafe food and water. An expert in this field, she too advised me to use nitrite, saying, “It’s the only really safe way and it’s better to be safe than sorry, trust me I know.”
Back on the web I came across a report which includes a National Academy of Sciences committee recommendation that “the search for alternatives and alternative approaches to the use of nitrite be continued” but goes on to say, “based on available evidence to date, nitrite as used in meat products is considered safe because known benefits outweigh potential risks.” This was reiterated by my dear friend and mentor “Doc” Johan Ferreira, an eminent food technologist, when I popped in to ask his opinion the other day.
So, in an organic nutshell, the fact is that I’m more likely to make someone ill with nitrite free smoked bacon than by adding a small amount of pink salt. In the meantime, until I find a better safe way, I’ll be making 2 kinds of bacon:
- Green bacon (unsmoked) which I will cure with just sea salt, brown sugar, herbs and spices
- Smoked bacon which I will cure in the same way except that to this I will add just 140mg /kg nitrite (E250). According to my research this is enough for safety purposes although South African law allows 160mg/kg nitrite and 200mg/kg nitrate, the UK allows 200mg/kg nitrite and 500mg/kg nitrate and the USA allows 184mg/kg nitrite.
I remain as enthusiastic and committed to the cause as ever and will keep sourcing my meat from small local suppliers whose animals are “free range” and grass fed and who don’t believe in adding growth hormones or the systematic use of antibiotics. My “fatto a mano” charcuterie products will continue to be slowly and lovingly crafted and will not be injected with brine or, other than this one exception, contain any preservatives, chemicals or gluten.
If anyone has a solution as to how I can avoid using nitrite all together without the concomitant risk, please speak up and make my day.” – Martin Raubenheimer – Cure Deli