The best tomatoes in the world — ground-ripened in a backyard or local farmer’s field — are still half a summer away in Missoula. But it’s never too early to start plotting how to enjoy every juicy bite when they make their appearance.
Which brings up an existential question: If you make a classic BLT with local bread, local tomatoes and local lettuce, can you find local bacon too?
The answer is yes. At Missoula’s Clark Fork Market, you’ll find at least two vendors selling bacon from pigs born, raised and processed in western Montana. One is Farm-to-Market Pork, based in Kalispell, and the other is Lower Crossing Farm, based in St. Ignatius.
Both are family-owned. Both raise hogs without hormones or steroids. Both raise the animals on site to control the quality of their feed and lives. Both offer products that are as fresh from the farm as possible, often available within days of being processed.
Lower Crossing Farm — look for a red truck with “LXF” in big letters on the side — is in its fourth season, said farmer/butcher/owner Jesse Hadden. The farm has beef, chickens, eggs, pork and more. At the Missoula market you’ll find the farm’s bacon (peppered or maple) sold by the pound, plus other meats, depending on the week — chicken, ground beef, sausage, chops, pastrami and house-made flavored meatballs, for example.
Farm-to-Market Pork offers some beef too, but pork is the star. At the Clark Fork Market look for a white truck with two small refrigerators set up nearby. They offer extra-lean and regular bacon, packaged in one-pound (-ish) packages, plus ham, various sausages, chops, roasts, ribs, ham hocks and more. Bacon and the farm’s pepperoni sticks and jerky are top-sellers, according to owner Ken Braaten, whose parents, Duane and Janette Braaten, started farming in 1975.
These are small farms: Lower Crossing Farm keeps 30 to 50 hogs in various stages of development and butchers just two hogs a week during peak months; Farm-to-Market Pork keeps about 800 hogs and butchers about 20 per week year-round.
Bacon from Lower Crossing Farm sells out quickly at the Clark Fork Market, so go early if you want to try it. LXF also sells at other farmers markets, including Bigfork’s.
Farm-to-Market Pork is a bigger operation and has a good supply of their regular or extra-lean bacon each week, already pre-packaged. It also has a retail outlet in Missoula (at 401 W. Broadway) that is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Farm-to-Market’s flagship store is in Kalispell, where the hogs are raised and processed, and the family sells its wares at farmers markets in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
Bacon is a pretty basic product, Braaten said. It comes from the belly of the pig, and is cured in a brine of salt and something sweet, such as maple syrup, cane sugar, honey or brown sugar. Then comes a smoking process, which both his farm and Lower Crossing Farm do naturally with various woods.
Smoking helps develop texture and gives the meat color and eye-appeal, Braaten said.
“That’s really all you need for a classic bacon,” he said. The skill is in the ratio of the sugar and salt, how long it cures, and how it is smoked, tweaking recipes to account for weather, humidity and other variables.
If bacon seems expensive, there’s a reason. Several, really.
“Bacon can only come from one place on a hog — the belly — and there’s only about 14 pounds of bacon on a hog, give or take,” Braaten said. “Sausages can come from anywhere.”
Raising the animal, butchering, buying ingredients for curing and wood for smoking all add up.
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Pork bellies have to be fresh, too. “With beef, you talk about aging the meat,” Braaten said. “But pork doesn’t age that well. It degrades.” So quick processing is key, he said.
Now comes the other existential bacon question: To fry or bake?
Bake, agreed both Braaten and Hadden. Less mess. More uniform cooking. Less greasy. Quicker clean-up. Janette Braaten once wrote instructions for “bakin’ bacon” with these hints:
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
• Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil.
• Line up the bacon strips on the foil, leaving breathing room between each strip.
• Cook for about 30 minutes, depending on whether you want crispy or soft bacon.
Variations on a BLT abound online, with ideas for adding sweet onion, sprouts, grilled zucchini, peppery arugula or crunchy coleslaw to the traditional sandwich, or adding fresh herbs, lemon juice or horseradish to the mayo.
But for Hadden, simplicity is best. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
But, he confesses, he does sometimes add a little garlic to his mayonnaise, just to give it a pop.
Simplicity is best for Braaten, too. But he does sometimes fix a BALT: bacon, avocado, lettuce and tomato.
Does small-batch, artisan bacon taste different from commercial bacon? You’ll have to make that judgment for yourself and the only way to know is to buy and try. You’ll probably say yes: There’s just a freshness that can’t be duplicated by commercial outfits.
Working with a local farmer, you know how the pigs are raised, how they are cared for, what they eat, how they are treated. That’s worth everything to many consumers. That comfort — and the amazing taste of fresh bacon — pairs well with a sweet, red, juicy, home-grown tomato.