Just the cure for bacon lovers' craving

Posted: December 26, 2010

Matt Ridgway calls the slabs that come out of his curing room at PorcSalt, simply, bacon. Which doesn't quite tell the whole story. That the pork bellies come from flavorful, old breeds - Berkshire and Berkshire-Duroc crosses, that last one from Breakway Farms in Mount Joy.

That it is cured in the Bucks County honey his father, Josef, collects. Or alternatively - for 10 days - with red Burgundy wine.

Or that it is, by design, hot-smoked for 10 hours over fruitwood at temperatures 10 degrees higher than name brands, which renders it (unlike commercial bacons) essentially cooked, though it looks like fat back, almost, when it's sliced, or what is known in Tuscany as lardo, a cured pork fat that is rich and sleek on the tongue.

It is, at the end of the day, beyond any bacon I've encountered - the honey-cured subtly sweet (and not too salty like some Virginia bacons), the wine-cured yielding an aroma of wine and smoke when it sizzles, its edges crisping, its fatty center sweet, abidingly rich, and surprisingly toothsome and chewy.

It has become - in a matter of months - the toast of Avalon, the West Chester eatery, where it stars (in gently crisped strips) in the wedge salad and on the charcuterie plate, and at Barclay Prime, the steak house on Rittenhouse Square, and at Cafe Boulud in New York, where the wine-cured model infuses the beef Bordelaise and wraps the chicken breasts.

Ridgway is telling me the backstory in the prosaic workrooms of his partner and distributor, River & Glen, the Warminster, Bucks County, procurer of small-batch, sustainable, hand-harvested clams and line-caught Alaskan fish, and pork that roams the forest, and duck and poultry that aren't hurried to market, that take their own sweet time to grow up.

Ridgway is a recovering chef, his resume including some of the finest kitchens - in California and Atlanta, at the Oak Room in the Plaza in New York (where he was chef de cuisine), in Taiwan and France, and Philadelphia's Four Seasons and Lacroix, and his own venture in Manhattan's Soho called Le Pescaduex, which left him sour on the newest crop of aspiring chefs who are - from where he stands, a wise, old 34-year-old - a bunch of ingrates breezing in for two-month runs, their eye fixed not on learning the ropes so much as catching the next Top Chef audition.

In September he founded PorcSalt, his own artisanal enterprise (in league with River & Glen's James MacKnight), his card now characterizing him not as a chef, but a "charcutier."

I hadn't seen him for a while. Then he showed up this month at a Narberth holiday street festival that his brother Ed helped organize, outfitted as a Victorian butcher in a long, white apron, a butchering knife sheathed horizontally at his waist.

On his push cart, next to his father's bottles of local (Buckingham, Bucks County) honey, he was selling the slabs of bacon. The ivory-colored one was cured with honey, not once but three times - during the cure, before the smoking, and again when the bellies come out of the smoker, a process that leaves them, counterintuitively, less sickly sweet than you think of when you think of "honey-baked."

The second one, the mildly tangy wine-cured, had the aspect of weathered buckskin or a splotched stone in a hemlock woods. Ridgway cut me hunks of each (they're $14 a pound in Warminster, by mail order, and at DiBruno Bros. on Ninth Street), and wrapped them in heavy brown paper and French butcher's twine. And I took them home.

I started my red sauce with some, adding a notable scent of smoke to it. And I fried onions with them at the beginning of my German-style red cabbage. And the other night, they transformed a pot of kale that we'd braised with balsamic vinegar and molasses.

I had the bacon - just one fatty strip - with my over-easy egg. And even had an unfried slice (well, a smidgen of a slice) Ridgway-style - on a baguette with butter (though not the Irish butter he prefers), and coarse salt (though not the fleur de sel he prefers).

He is making other things in the Warminster workroom - duck rillette, and duck prosciutto, and flat pancetta. But for now, the only thing I really care about bringing home is another half slab of that bacon.


PorcSalt

390 Nina Way,

Warminster

215-442-1627

www.porcsalt.com

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