Bacon really does make everything better

I was privileged to be invited to Biltmore Estate in Asheville a couple of weeks ago for the first Field to Table Festival, celebrating local farming and great food. The estate is honoring the farming past by increasing the amount of produce and meat it produces for use in its restaurants. Right now, 18 percent of items on the restaurants’ menus are grown on the estate.

My talks were on tailgating. But I had fun watching a bright, young chef from Charleston, S.C. do bizarre things with bacon. Sean Brock, chef of McCrady’s Restaurant, is into the trendy molecular gastronomy, which can turn a kitchen into a chemistry lab. Frankly, I’ve been leery, concerned that playing with the toys would take over the flavor of the food.

But John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance introduced Brock by addressing that issue. He talked about Brock’s respect for locally produced ingredients and traditional flavors. “His food is molecular cuisine takes on Southern food,” Edge said. “Sean’s food is really rooted in Southern tradition.”

Brock said that the restaurant staff – not an experienced farmer in the bunch – cultivates a 3-acre garden which he uses to supply McCrady’s. The garden focuses on heirloom varieties, and Brock works with Seed Savers Exchange to save vanishing vegetables.

When the two interests collide, the results are such things as taking rare James Island red corn (“It was mostly used for moonshine,” Brock said.) and making grits using liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen clocks in at minus 270 degrees F. “The secret to milling good corn is that the stone be cold. Well, I didn’t have a mill, but I did have liquid nitrogen,” he said. “I dumped in the corn, and it shattered immediately into grits. They tasted like eating hot buttered cornbread.”

Grinning like a kid contemplating a Halloween prank, Brock decided to show the group what happens when great bacon meets a mad scientist: bacon ice cream. Melted Haagen-Daz went into Brock’s seemingly endless supply of liquid nitrogen, this time in a mixer to fluff up the ice cream. Then, cooked smoky bacon.

Sean Brock, left, makes ice cream using liquid nitrogen with John T. Edge.(In the photo at right, Brock is the crazy guy on the left. Edge is on the right, behind the steam.)

The ice cream froze in no time, and what’s not to like about sweet and salty? But the real surprise for me was bacon cotton candy, which Brock made in one of those little pink toy-like cotton candy machines. Sugar and fat don’t like each other, Brock explained, so he used an invert sugar and an alcohol-based sugar to combine with the bacon fat, which he heated with glycerine flakes.

Got that? Then go to the head of the class. I didn’t, but it didn’t matter. The off-white colored cotton candy, which wasn’t extremely sweet, was like eating bacony air that evaporated on my tongue.

If I needed more evidence that, despite the high-tech trinkets, this Virginia native is a real Southern boy: Brock said that he goes through 50 pounds of bacon a week at the restaurant.

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