“The difference between involvement and commitment is like the difference between eggs and ham. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.” – Martina Navratilova.
I have always loved pork – so much so that when as kids we watched cartoons, I was the only one rooting for the wolf to blow down the third piggy’s brick house! It must be my French ancestry, but I don’t share the common prejudice against these useful, intelligent animals. Instead I associate them with charcuterie: the myriad ways in which pork is turned into a delicacy. Although I love salami, pâté de campagne and Lyon sausage – and make them myself – my favourite pork product is ham.
Ham is part of the family known as salumi or salted preserved meats. While salting is a common denominator, the preservation process can take any one of three forms: dry curing, wet curing or smoking (or a combination of these). The term is synonymous with the hind leg of a pig. In antiquity preserving food during times of plenty was essential, and pigs were ideal candidates as they are omnivores, are efficient at converting fodder into protein and grow quickly.
Judging by archeological evidence, Europeans have been making ham for millennia, but the Chinese insist that they were the earliest charcutiers. The earliest mention of the Jinhua ham processing technique was recorded during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), and some historians claim that this method of dry ham production was brought back to Europe, along with pasta and sauerkraut, by the intrepid Marco Polo. I subscribe to the theory that the Celts of modern-day Wales were in fact the first makers of ham. Legend has it that the Roman occupiers who settled in Carmarthen in the First Century BCE stole the recipe, and on their return to Italy used it to make the prototype prosciutto.
The modern word "ham" is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon term for the hollow or bend of the knee. It began to refer to the preserved leg of pork during the late Middle Ages. Ham is typically used in its sliced form, probably most often as a filling for sandwiches like the ubiquitous American ham, cheese and tomato “sub”, English and German ham and mustard sandwiches or the toasted French croque-monsieur. Other celebrated uses include pizza toppings, pasta sauces and tapas. In many European cultures a glazed, oven-roasted whole ham takes pride of place at Christmas lunches or dinners. In a well-know Spanish Tits & Ass movie, a ham even served as a murder weapon...
Over the centuries, hams from certain towns, cities or regions have become famous for their flavour and texture, and the consistency of their quality. The most sought-after (and expensive) hams are from the dry-cured category, inter alia Ibérico and Serrano from Spain, Parma and San Daniele from Italy, Bayonne from France, Presunto from Portugal, Ardennes from Belgium and Jinhua from China. Famous smoked hams include Smithfield from the USA, Speck from the Italian Tirol and Black Forest from Germany. Last – but certainly not least – we have wet-cured or brined hams like Jambon de Paris, Wiltshire from the UK and Prague from the Czech Republic. Certain wet-cured hams are smoked as well, e.g. Prague Ham and Portuguese Fiambre.
Salting the ham
This process involves cleaning the raw meat and covering it in salt for a month or more. All the while it is gradually pressed so as to extract all the blood. Traditional dry cure hams may only use salt as the curative agent, such as with San Daniele or Parma hams. Others like Tuscan Ham derive extra flavour from herbs and spices (like garlic, black pepper, juniper berries or even bay leaves) added to the salt during this step. The hams are then washed and hung in a dark, temperature-regulated place until dry.
Different hams follow different paths thereafter. Hams destined to be smoked are off to the smoke house, while dry-cured (sometimes called air-dried) ham are hung in cool, aerated rooms, cellars or even caves for specified periods of time.
Dry curing involves complex bio-chemical processes, not unlike fermentation. The net effect of these is to infuse the meat with a sweetish, often nutty flavour. The fatty parts are transformed as well, with amino and unsaturated fatty acids being freed up, making the ham more easily digestible and wholesome. The characteristics of the individual animal used, like race, feed, sex, age and weight play a part in the quality of the end product, as do factors such as temperature, humidity, duration of curing, duration, water content and salt content.
Ham can also be preserved by cold smoking it. This entails placing the meat in a smokehouse for a day or more to be cured by the action of smoke. The meat is never exposed to the heat used to generate the smoke, as this would speed up the process and “cook” the ham. Popular cold smoking fuels include beech and oak chips (for more delicate flavour) and pine or fir twigs (for a strong smoke effect).
Wet curing (also known as brining) involves the immersion of the meat in a brine, consisting mainly of water and salt. Some brines contain other curing agents like sodium nitrite and/or sugar as well. The ham is kep immersed for anything between two days and two weeks, depending on its size and the type of ham being made. The meat is turned periodically, and the brine stirred up regularly to prevent it seperating. Wet curing has the effect of actually increasing both the size and the weight of the ham by up to 5%.
Once ham has been preserved in the ways described above, it is ready to eat. Some – especially the wet-cured variety – benefit from subsequent boiling or roasting. Oven-roasted, uncured pork leg is a popular cousin of the true ham, and is called “gammon” (after the Spanish jamón) in Commonwealth countries and as “gammon ham” in the USA.
Iconic dry-cured hams
All the big-name four are salted and then dried naturally over a period of months. In fact, the etymology proves it: the Italian prosciutto comes from the Latin pro, meaning “before”, and exsuctus meaning “to suck out the moisture”. The Portuguese word presunto has exactly the same meaning, as do the Slovenian, Croatian and Montenegrin pršuta.
The Spanish word serrano can be similarly interpreted. It can be translated as “from the mountains”, referring to the mountains where the ham is dried in the cool mountain air. Jambon Sec means “dried ham” in French. Both of these also use salting to help dry the meat out. As all dry-cured hams are salted and then air dried, their flavours are in fact somewhat similar. There are, however, some interesting nuances in their taste and flavour. The main factors behind these differences are:
Genetics. The black Ibérico pigs that roam the oak groves of Spain are closely related to wild boar, and have relatively low fat content with the fat evenly spread. This isn’t the case in the rest of Europe, where white domesticated pigs (with dry meat and separate layers of fat) predominate. The evenly distributed fat keeps Ibérico ham juicy even when dried for longer. This gives it a much richer and more intense flavour than other European dried hams.
Microclimate. Cool, dry mountain air, combined with steep hillsides give free-range pigs a distinctly more intense character. Their tame counterparts who live comfortable lives in farmyards put on weight quickly, without attaining great intensity of taste.
Feeding. The type and quantity of fodder available to the pigs is obviously a huge differentiator. For example, pigs with the Parma appellation gorge on chestnuts, giving them a distinctive nutty flavour. The famous Jamón Ibérico de Bellota pigs, on the other hand, gorge themselves on acorns in autumn with corresponding results.
Time. The length of time the ham is hung determines how concentrated the taste, flavor and colour will be. Italian and French hams are cured 10-12 months. The relatively short curing times have an effect on taste and texture. Parma ham is known for its smooth, lightly-salted taste, whilst San Daniele has a sweet-salty flavour. Bayonne ham is even milder – in wine parlance a rosé in comparison to the full-bodied reds of its Spanish equivalents. These “heavyweights” are matured for 18 months to two years (in the case of Serrano) and three to five years (in the case of Ibérico).
Which dry-cured ham one prefers is a matter of personal, largely subjective, taste. Some people develop a “taste” for a certain variety. Others identify with the origin, culture or history associated with a particular kind of ham. The choices are legion, and include:
- Ardennes Ham from Belgium.
- Carmarthen from Wales.
- Elenski But from Bulgaria.
- Jambon Afumat from Romania.
- Jambon de Bayonne from the French Basque country
- Jambon de Pays from Gascony (South-Western France).
- Jamón from Spain.
- Jinhua from China.
- Prosciutto from Italy – Aosta, Toscano and Parma.
- Presunto from Portugal.
- Pršuta from the former Yugoslavia.
- San Daniele from Italy.
- York Ham from North-Eastern England.
Primus inter Pares
Let me cut to the chase and state for the record that Jamón Ibérico is in a league all of its own. This noble ham is steeped in history and romance. The ancient oak pastures (Las Dehesas) of Spain provide sustenance to the noble black Ibérico pig with its juicy, marbled flesh. The origin of the Ibérico harks back to the time of the cavemen who decorated the caves of Spain with their art. These are the original swine of Spain; big, with slender legs and a very long snout. Ibérico pigs are black, with very little hair. They have black hooves as well, which is the source of the phrase Pata Negra which refers to the black hoof that remains on the ham throughout the curing process and distinguishes it from a Serrano ham.
Not all Ibérico pigs live free in the Spanish countryside. Most Jamón Ibérico is made from pigs that live normal pig lives eating corn and other feed. It is still an excellent ham, benefiting from the noble lineage of the pigs. It is not as celebrated as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, made from acorn-fed animals. The latter can cost twice as much as a “normal” Ibérico ham. If they are lucky enough to be destined for Bellota status, pigs spend their last few months ranging freely on the Dehesa in small family clans. Here they forage for acorns, as well as herbs and grasses. This combination of exercise and feasting, especially during the acorn season, makes for exquisitely marbled raw material, packed with natural antioxidants – a key ingredient for extended curing of the ham. A pig can double its weight during the three-month long acorn season.
Over the last century, family factories have begun curing Ibérico hams in large quantities using the same methods. The hams are left to absorb the salt for a few weeks. Then they are hung in factories that still have open windows to allow the mountain air to circulate around the hams. Ibérico hams are usually ready after about two years, while their Bellota cousins can take up to five years of maturation. This extraordinarily long curing process is possible because of the huge amount of fat on each ham and - in the case of Bellota hams - their antioxidant content. During curing they lose nearly half their weight, and massive chemical changes take place.
As the meat becomes dryer and cools off, complex, volatile molecules build up in the ham, transforming it from a piece of pork into a work of art. In Bellota hams, the most miraculous transformation is that of the fats. Through this period of heating and cooling, salting and drying, the fats are broken down. Because of the antioxidants in the acorns and the unique curing process, the saturated fats are changed into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil.
The end result of this process is a long, thin leg of ham with a deep golden exterior. The meat is dark red, marbled with veins of fat. Trained waiters slice it wafer-thin, whereafter it is eaten accompanied by bone-dry Fino sherry. A really good Bellota should taste sweet, nutty, and not too salty. An essential part of the flavour and mouth-feel is the way the fat melts away and then evaporates, releasing a complex mixture of flavours. Any serious gourmand should have this treat on his/her bucket list!
Black Forest Ham
The big names in the Smoked Ham category are Smithfield Country Ham from the USA, Speck from the Italian Tirol and Westphalian Ham from Germany. A first cousin is the delectable Jambon Persillé (Parsley Ham) of Burgundy, which consists of chunks of smoked Jambon de Pays held together by gelatine. My favourite smoked ham is another German classic: the much sought-after (and widely imitated) Black Forest Ham.
Black Forest ham is characterised by its deep red colour and rich flavour. The Black Forest variety is typically a smoked, boneless ham, traditionally made in the Black Forest region of Germany. The Black Forest is a famous wooded resort area in South-Western Germany. It is a traditional source of a number of German foods and crafts, in addition to being a popular vacation spot. Interestingly, the mighty Danube River originates in the Black Forest, and flows into the Black Sea!
By tradition, Black Forest ham is a boneless smoked ham, which means that the butcher must fillet the leg of pork before curing it. The next step is to rub the meat in a mixture of salt, garlic, coriander, juniper berries, pepper and cloves. It is allowed to dehydrate for two weeks before the salt is scraped off and the ham left to air-dry for a further two weeks. After this, the ham is cold smoked over fir or pine branches. During the smoking process, the ham acquires its robust flavour and deep red coloration. After smoking, the meat is ready for consumption.
Most North American hams are made in more or less the same way, based on the Black Forest method brought along by the millions of Germans who emigrated to the USA in the late Nineteenth Century. Initially, lots of Black Forest Ham was imported from the Old Country by homesick Germans, until they invented their own process. Today their brainchild is hugely popular throughout the South-East, with the style adopted in Virginia the most highly regarded. Smithfield Ham is the best-known example of this type of ham.
There are several methods of cooking a country ham including slicing and pan-frying, baking whole, and simmering for several hours (in several changes of water). Whole hams may need to be scrubbed and soaked for several hours before eating to remove the salt cure and mold. Even when soaked, they are still quite salty. For traditionalists, part of the appeal of country ham is this highly salty taste.
For those put off by the overpowering smokiness of Black Forest-style ham, Speck from the Alto Adige (South Tirol) Region of Italy provides a delightful and nuanced merging of Northern European and Mediterranean traditions. Speck – not to be confused with the eponymous German bacon - is much lighter in flavor than the heavily smoked hams found north of the Alps, but more robust than the delicate prosciutto made in San Daniele and Parma.
The secret lies in the way it is smoked; using low-resin wood like oak or beech at a carefully controlled low temperature, to ensure that the meat remains sweet and takes on only a mildly smoky flavor. The smoking is accomplished gradually, for a few hours at a time, over a period of several months. In the interim, the ham is exposed to the crisp Tyrolean mountain air. The theory is that a slow, gentle process allows the smoke to penetrate through the meat, whereas more intense, faster smoking merely affects the outer layer.
The Bohemian Ham
Most of us first encounter ham in our school lunchboxes. The thin slices of ham in our sandwiches are almost always from some form of wet-cured ham. The best-known of these hams are the French Jambon de Paris and Wiltshire Ham from Southern England (both brined but not smoked) and Pražská Šunka (Prague Ham), which is wet-cured and then smoked. The Parisian-style ham is sold cooked and ready to eat, while Wiltshire Ham is sold complete with the skin and outer fat so that it can be glazed and oven-roasted. I have vivid memories of Christmas lunches where the highlight was being rewarded with pieces of crackling, each spiked with a clove.
Ham and gammon are both called šunka in Czech. The Czech Republic produces two top-notch hams. One is internationally known as Prague Ham (Pražská Šunka in Czech or Prager Schinken in German). It is a brine-cured, fully cooked then smoked, boneless ham. The other type is Šunka od kosti - "ham from the bone", a traditional delicacy which used to be rare under Communism. Prague Ham was the precursor to all of today's stewed hams, and has been made in its current form since the Nineteenth Century. It became so popular in the rest of Europe that the value of ham and Pilsener Lager exports rivaled that of motor vehicles and weapons.
Prague Ham is traditionally served in restaurants with a side of boiled potatoes and lots of the good beer the Czechs are justifiably famous for. Its fame has led to restaurateurs in the touristy parts of Prague charging steep prices for it. Tourists repelled by the prices on the menus displayed outside restaurants often fall victim to confidence tricksters operating out of nearby food stalls. Shady street vendors sell the same dish, but charge for it by the weight in grams - rather than per serving. Tourists who don't know any better and say how much they want will get a large slab of ham and a heaping side order of potatoes. What seemed an economical meal at first usually adds up to more than if they had ordered it in a fine restaurant!
“My grandpa was such a sourpuss; he’d gripe with a ham under each arm.” – Jeff Foxworthy.