Curing hams by carefully trimming them, then salting the skin and exposed meat heavily and hanging it in an airy space so that the salt draws the moisture out and the flesh absorbs the salt back in is a very ancient art creating a ham. It is succulent, gorgeously coloured and so hygienically cured that the whole leg will keep for years.
These hams were a speciality of mountainous regions. The quality factors are good healthy pigs, the skill of the butcher/salter, fresh mountain air (or hillside at the very least) breezing through the special shuttered drying rooms and the time spent maturing. Italy’s prosciutti crudi are the best-known examples of air-cured ham, number one in fame and production being Parma ham, the production of which is strictly controlled by law. Prosciutto di San Daniele is made on a much smaller scale, and often from smaller pigs, in the hills of the Fruili. Some Italian gourmets believe it beats Parma hams down. Bayonne ham is the French equivalent, and we have a Lake District version which is very good, made by Richard Woodall of Waberthwaite. The air-cured ham the UK knows least well is the Spanish Jamon Serrano, which tends to be darker and more intensely flavoured than prosciutto. Ordinary Serrano is a bargain, and the special (and very expensive) Jabugo and Jamon Pata Negra hams from free- ranging black pigs who eat plenty of acorns are surely among the best hams in the world.
Brined and smoked ham
Why is it, I wonder, that this nation which has such a proud tradition of smoking, curing and pickling hams is content to buy the square, water-pumped, bland variety? Our York hams were once as prized on the Continent as Parma ham, and it surely is time we rallied around the remaining skilled producers who buy best quality pork and mature it properly. Here are the main cures to look out for.
Marsh York cure
If you prefer an unsmoked ham, this is the finest. Mild cured and slowly matured, it has a sharp salty flavour. Eat it with a good English mustard sharp enough to make your nose wrinkle!
This is for those who enjoy a smoked ham. This has a very dark, almost black skin and a sweet subtle flavour, which comes from being steeped in a mixture of spices, juniper berries and molasses before being smoked and matured.
Mark Thomas of Emmett's Store in Peasenhall www.emmettshams.co.uk specialises in sweet-cured Black Suffolk Hams and mild-cured Hams. These are hams are first brined, then pickled in a mixture of stout, spices and molasses. The process takes up to 10 weeks. At Christmas Mark produces special Christmas hams with additional flavours like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Emmett's had a royal warrant from H M Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who enjoyed Emmett's hams for many years.
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