PRODUCE: BACON, SAUSAGES, GAMMON, HAM
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 21.66 MILES
Breakfast heaven to me is a bacon sandwich; thick rashers of back bacon sandwiched between lovely fresh bread. Living in Canada, I craved decent back bacon (they seem to favour the streaky kind), so when I got back to Bristol and stumbled across some amazing back bacon stocked in a shop round the corner, I enquired of its origins. Sandridge Farmhouse you say? A visit was most definitely in order.
Rosemary greets me in the farmyard as I arrive. Her husband Roger was born on the farm, with his father starting out as a tenant farmer, before they eventually bought the farm and expanded to the current 350 acres. It’s continued to be a family affair, with their daughter Charlotte and her husband working in the business as well. Charlotte and Roger join us in the farm shop, which they started 40 years ago (“We started a farm shop before anyone had heard of farm shops!” Roger jokes), but is now only open for 3 weeks around Christmas. Instead they sell to butchers, farm shops, community shops and restaurants; “Anything but supermarkets!” Rosemary explains. They’re also working on increasing their mail ordering business, enabling them to reach customers all over the country.
I ask how the bacon part of the business started. 28 years ago the local bacon factories around the farm in Wiltshire closed, and Roger decided it was time to expand the pork side of the business. He went to Chippenham to look at buying some of the machinery, and Rosemary explains, “He came back with the manager from the bacon factory and told him to do it how it used to be done before the machinery took over!” Now they have large refrigerated buildings in which they brine and cure the bacon, employing 15 people in the meat business, and a further 6 on the farm.
I visit at the busiest time of the year, in the run up to Christmas, where their production is dramatically increased to meet the seasonal demand. At three times their regular throughput, it’s remarkably calm, or ‘controlled panic’ as Roger jokingly calls it. I put on a fetching white coat and hairnet, and he takes me into the chilled space. He briefly introduces me to their manager Kevin in a few seconds of calm. “There’s the logistical side of making sure everything is fresh at the right time, to the right people, how they want it,” Kevin explains before disappearing back to work. “It’s all very specific!”
All the pigs are raised on their farm, then taken to the local abattoir, only half a mile up the road. Some of the meet is kept for gammon, hams or bacon, and the rest made into sausages. The Wiltshire cure is distinct, with sides being submerged in brine for four days, before being left for around two weeks to mature and drain. No additional water is added to the meat, and the brine isn’t pumped in as with a lot of modern bacon. The smoked bacon, known as ‘Golden rind’ spends two days in the smoker with oak and beech sawdust to give it the distinctive taste and colour. They also produce a number of dry cured bacons, including the maple and somerset sweet cures. Along with the bacon, they make their special pancetta, and fresh and smoked gammons.
We stop for a moment to chat about ham. I’d thought ham was ham, but the five very different hams they produce teach me otherwise. “Our hams are named after local places, and the different characteristics of the hams reflect the places,” Roger tells me, explaining that the Devizes ham uses Wadworths beer in the cure. “We’re doing what bacon factories were doing 50, 100 years ago,” Roger explains as I stop to photograph some of the smoked joints. “But these days you can’t find anywhere else that’s doing it like this. The regulations and rules have driven all the small scale people out of business.”
We move through to the final room, where some of the joints are boned, and the bacon is sliced. Offcuts go to a local restaurant for pizza, as Roger says, “It all finds a place.” From there, it’s weighed, vacuum packed and the orders are made up before being shipped out to butchers, shops and restaurants across the region. “We aim for a good product at a decent price,” Roger explains. “The prices have always been so up and down; I’ve always tried to make a level line.”
We finish our tour of the building, and I get to remove my white gown and hairnet as we head outside to see the farm. Roger stops to pick up a bucket of windfall apples, a treat for the pigs, and we head off to see his saddleback pigs. “They’re the only ones outdoors at this time of year; they just don’t want to be inside. If we take them in, they’re not happy about it.” He has 300 sows in total, so these 3 sows and boar rummaging around in the mud for the apples are the tip of the iceberg.
As we walk back to the farmhouse, he tells me about his latest venture; cider making. “I’ve got a little commercial orchard, and have just ordered another 90 trees of a cider variety. I’ve got about 100 gallons at the moment, quietly burping away. All the waste crushed stuff can go to the pigs; it goes hand in hand really.”
I’m welcomed in with a cup of tea and a homemade mince pie. Rose has got a bacon joint bubbling away on the stove in a pot full of cider and the kitchen smells amazing. We chat about the history of the farm and their plans for the future as we sip our drinks. I ask Roger where he wants to see the business go. “Well, apart for my business of cider making…” he jokes, before talking about the importance of expanding the mail order business. “I fear for the number of butchers we have right now, because when they retire they don’t always have anyone else to hand it on to.”
All too soon, the electrician interrupts the moment, and it’s time for me to leave, safe in the knowledge that I know exactly where my bacon comes from.
Find out more: http://sandridgefarmhousebacon.co.uk