Why this the most reliable and economical purchase you will make this Christmas:
No fridge is complete without a decent ham at this time of year. From hot ham on Christmas Eve with greens and parsley sauce, to cold cuts with pickles on Boxing Day or a homemade leftovers pie. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a late night slice sneaked from the fridge after a few too many glasses of wine. Whether it is plain or smoked, bone in or boneless, there is something to suit everyone and if you’re stuck for a present, why not give a ham?!
Here is a bit about why ours are so special:
A few passionate farmers have kept traditional breeds going, feeling that the fabulous flavour of the meat and the truly wonderful individual characteristics of the breeds make for a more pleasurable farming life. Although these traditional pigs are becoming more popular now, because of their rarity, the gene pool is far smaller than it 100 years ago, which makes it more of a challenge. By carefully crossing breeds a process that is known as ‘hybrid vigour’ steps in, increasing both litter sizes and the strength of the piglets.
Each breed has its own special quality that is important for the final meat. Some have long backs to make excellent bacon, others produce the best roasting cuts; some have wide, strong bums for fine ham, others have a meat-to-fat ratio that makes fantastic sausages, pies or charcuterie. We need this variety of qualities to be able to offer the best in our shops.
We have also chosen some pigs to help maintain rare British breeds for the future; some of our breeds’ ancestries go back hundreds of years.
WHAT GOES INTO OUR HAMS
Modern ways of preserving have a tendency to remove the soul of the raw ingredient. Traditional methods, such as curing, storing fat and bottling retain the characteristics of what you started with.
In basic terms, curing is a form of dehydration, using the deliquescent properties of salt to draw moisture out of food, water – along with warmth, oxygen and time – being the catalyst for bacteria and degradation. Although it is possible to cure meat with just salt, the usual practice is to add nitrates and sugar too, the former to keep an attractive colour, the latter to soften the harshness of the salt and allow you to use a little less of it. This method is known as dry-curing, but there is another method – wet-curing (also known as brining).
After chemically removing the moisture using a natural cure, meat needs to be hung to allow it to ‘set’, to dry a little and firm up enough to slice. Years ago, hams and sides of bacon were hung from ropes strung from the ceilings of pantries and kitchens. The neck of a broken bottle was threaded onto the top of the rope, spiky end up, to keep away rodents.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF CURING AND PRESERVING
- Use the freshest meat you can get, preferably within 36 hours of the animal’s slaughter.
- Size is everything. The large the piece of meat, the longer and stronger the cure needs to be. The cure must completely penetrate the meat in order to draw out the moisture and preserve the flesh.
- Balance is also key. Too much salt in the curing mix can produce too firm a texture and too harsh a taste; too little and the meat will spoil. Ten percent is a reliable ratio for the home cook.
- Keep cool and consistent. Curing is a chemical reaction, so excess heat or changes in temperature will affect this reaction. The meat and its cure are best kept in a cool, dryish place, such as a well-insulated garage, shed or cellar.
- Fat is good. Without a decent covering of fat, cured meat won’t ‘set’ properly when it is hung. It is the fat that offers structure and support, with the meat remaining relatively soft and therefore difficult to handle and slice.
- Cure in a non-reactive container, such as large plastic, enamel or porcelain box or dish. Materials like aluminium, copper and cast iron are reactive, meaning that they have properties that may react chemically with an ingredient, therefore tainting the finished dish.
- Smoking does not act as a preservative. While it aids the process of drying the finished product, it is used mainly to flavour.
MAKING HAM THE GINGER PIG WAY
Leg of pork, taken from the hindquarter of the animal, is a plentiful cut and usually quite economical to buy. Although it makes a decent roast, it pales in comparison to shoulder, belly and loin and it’s in its cured form – ham – that it really begins to shine.
Although we use a dry cure for our bacon, we use a wet cure – submersing the meat in a brine bath – for our ham. A whole leg is a big joint and requires a lot of salt, and a lot of time in it, in order for the cure to penetrate right to the bone. If the penetration is incomplete, the flesh near the bone will spoil and you’ll lose the whole lot. Loins and bellies, being long and fat, cure much faster than legs; a ham simply becomes very salty if dry-cured for the time required.
Thanks to refrigeration, less salt can be used now for the curing process because chilling helps meat to last a good while. This has done great things for the flavour and texture of British ham, one of the few aspects of modernisation that has improved the ham and bacon we eat.
Submerging the pork leg in a wet cure or brine uses much less salt than a dry salt rub, and allows the salt to penetrate the meat more evenly. This process, somewhat counter-intuitively, still functions as a drying method, drawing out moisture while allowing salt in. It’s only when pork is injected with saline solution that it holds the liquid. Some producers do this to increase the weight and therefore the profit margin, speed up production and give a longer shelf life, but the end result is watery and flavourless.
We use legs from smallish pigs weighting around 85kg, which result in finished hams of around 7-8kg. We feel that these slightly smaller legs achieve the right balance between size, salt required and the curing times that the ham produced is neither too small nor too salty.
We brine the legs for a week, transfer them into a fresh brine for a further 4-6 days to finish the cure. The cured hams are then gently simmered in water (around 20 mins per lb or 450g) until cooked. After that, the meat can be cooled for slicing, or eaten hot.
Photography by Kristin Perers.