Standing on Kilmore Quay, looking out at Inish Corkish, tranquillity surrounds me. The light misting rain heightens the smell of the wild clover and vegetation. Stretching out before me like a sheet of glass is Lower Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh, its islands reflected in the water. Evening birdsong fills the damp air.
Speeding across the water towards Inish Corkish with Pat O’Doherty, our boat is the only thing to interrupt the stillness.
O’Doherty’s Fresh Meats, Enniskillen, is a butchery specializing in a wide range of meat products from fine Fermanagh lamb to prime fillet steaks. Meat from Pat’s butchers graces the tables of some of the world’s most famous people, including HRH Queen Elizabeth.
Pat’s great speciality is his Fermanagh Black Bacon, and he has spent years travelling the length and breath of Lough Erne in his boat talking to islanders and farmers about bacon, pigs and farming. He uncovered ancient Irish bacon-making secrets that have been used in Fermanagh since the dawn of time. The secret, as Dan says, is ‘Happy pigs!’
As we pulled up at the quayside I was about to discover what makes Inish Corkish unique – this is where Pat’s pigs live from early Summer to late Autumn. He has a mix of breeds, including Tamworth (red), Saddleback (black & white) and Wessex (black). They arrive on the island as eight week old piglets towards the end of May.
Here, the pigs live an idyllic life, free to roam, forage and sleep as they would have centuries ago, completely in the wild. A traditional flat-bottomed boat, a Lough Erne Cot is used by Pat to transport his pigs to and from the island.
With a glut of mass produced, chemically enhanced bacon crowding our supermarkets and the pork industry experiencing many difficulties, he wanted to return to a more natural and traditional product.
"Bacon has been a staple part of the Irish diet for a millennia, but the taste of yesteryear has all but disappeared. I wanted to bring bacon back to the distinctive product it once was one full of the taste and aroma that really gets the tastebuds going. Good bacon always starts with good pigs that lead happy, free lives".
"I become very attached to the pigs," says Pat. "I travel to the island each night, to give them little snacks and check on their well being. I’m fascinated by the way they interact with nature and each other." And the pigs' attachment to Pat is clear because as soon as they discover he is on the island, they trot over to greet him, and rub their bodies against him.
"Human beings who maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle enjoy a better quality of life. The same applies to pigs. I want people to realise that there’s an animal behind their pork chop." Pat is an organic butcher, certified by the Soil Association. Organic Fermanagh Black Bacon is produced alongside five others - Traditional, Streaky, Oak Smoked, Brandy Cured and Nitrate Free Bacon. The curing recipes are closely guarded secrets.
Pat’s Nitrate Free Bacon contains no E-numbers and is the first of its kind in Europe. Nitrates artificially extend shelf life and provide the enriched pink colour found in most bacons on the supermarket shelves today. They have been linked with carcinogens and instances of oxidative stress in autistic children. Pat has broken the mould, delighting the Soil Association by producing bacon free from these preservatives.
Fermanagh Black Bacon is hung to mature for at least three months - some commercial bacon may only be hung for three days. Donning a blue cap and protective boots, Pat takes me to the area in his butcher’s shop where the sides of bacon are hung, sliced and packaged. As he lifted a side of bacon, the light sweet smell of peat lingered as he began to slice it.
When I cooked it for breakfast the next morning, my pan had no sticky white residue or greasy liquid common with mass produced rashers. Instead there was a depth of flavor that was unlike anything I had ever tasted before.
Fermanagh Black Bacon has been sold in Harrods Food Halls for the past several years and is a part of their Christmas hampers. With a booming worldwide online customer base, Pat is ensuring his bacon is available to all who want it, "I have customers who order from the States, from London, from Dublin, Cork, Manchester, and just this morning I got an order from Edinburgh."
With such an amazing fan base, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that Fermanagh Black Bacon has won a series of accolades including a mention in Rick Stein’s "Food Heroes", the Supreme Award for Outstanding Product in the "Ballygowan Irish Food Writers Guild Awards" and a mention in the prestigious "Bridgestone Food Lover's Guide to Northern Ireland".
Pat has reawakened an Irish tradition that has been sleeping – proper bacon making. I encourage you to try it.
That's it for now ...
Salt & Sparkle = Life Remarkable
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