It’s perfectly round and fleshy and is just about the most dangerously moreish meat you’re likely to find in Canada. But what is it about Canadian bacon that sets it apart from the rest? If you’ve ever been to Vancouver, Toronto or Quebec and asked for Eggs Benedict then you’ll know that Canadian bacon is up there with the likes of maple syrup, Leonard Cohen and Nova Scotia lobster when it comes to genius Canadian exports. For wedged between your English muffin and poached egg you will find one of the juiciest, most flavoursome slabs of cured pork you are ever likely to eat. Unlike the greasy, streaky strips enjoyed by Americans and Brits, Canadian bacon arrives in ready-to-eat uniform rounds that are more like slices of pre-cooked ham than anything you’d find in a bacon butty.
What’s more, Canadian bacon is derived from the boneless loin of a pig, making it a whole lot less fatty (streaky bacon is cut from the belly). Indeed, it is Canadian bacon’s lack of fat that means it doesn’t crisp and curl with heat, ensuring it retains its trademark sweet, juicy character. The origins of Canadian bacon are as murky as the briny water used to salt it. But it is generally believed to have originated in Southern Ontario in the guise of a regional dish known as peameal bacon, a form of unsmoked, wet cured pork loin, trimmed into a spherical shape and rolled in ground yellow peas or cornmeal to help extend its shelf life. Despite its Canadian origins however, it took an Englishman to make Canadian bacon famous. It all started in the early 1800s with a young school dropout by the name of William Davies, who had a small meat-curing business in the town of Reading, England. Make no mistake about it; nineteenth-century England was the place to be for anybody wanting to make it in the world of bacon. The English not only boasted a bacon-making heritage stretching back to the first millennium AD (the Saxon era), but had also established numerous regional pedigree breeds of pig that were largely raised for their ability to produce incredibletasting rashers.
However, the sheer variety of bacon that had developed in England by the mid 1800s meant that the country was awash with quality butchers, making it a terrifyingly competitive place for a rookie butcher to make his name. It was at this time that Davies and his wife made the decision to immigrate to Toronto. Upon arrival, Davies did what he knew best, establishing a small stall specialising in cured ham and bacon at Toronto’s bustling St Lawrence Market.
As he gradually became aware of the high-quality character of Canadian pork, Davies realised there was as an opportunity to export it back to Britain. It was a plucky move given his home country already had a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest ham. But Davies’s gamble paid off and by the 1890s the William Davies Company operated 84 retail outlets across Ontario, slaughtered 500,000 pigs a year and was responsible for over half of Canada’s entire bacon trade with Britain. Indeed, it eventually grew to become the largest pork packer in the British Empire, giving Toronto one of it’s longest standing nicknames: ‘hogtown’.
Davies died in 1921, and, not one to do things conventionally, his death was attributed to him never fully recovering from being butted by a goat whilst relieving himself on a roadside in the American South. But Davies’s legacy lives on. Today, thousands flock to St Lawrence Market, where peameal bacon sandwiches are served up pure and simple on a crusty roll and adorned with nothing. Explore the rest of the city, however, and you’ll find a new breed of Canadian bacon connoisseurs serving their meat in sky-high sandwiches crammed with the likes of lettuce, cheddar, pickles, tomatoes, caramelised onions, fried eggs and duck fat. And you thought the Full English Breakfast was unhealthy…