Edible histories: ham

Categories: History of food

From Diocletian’s edict to Eliza Leslie’s sarnies: Mark Riddaway on the history of ham

Words: Mark Riddaway

In 301AD, in an attempt to control the Roman empire’s ruinously high level of inflation, Emperor Diocletian issued an edict setting a price ceiling for goods and services. As with just about every piece of price control legislation since the dawn of time, it failed miserably—markets, as we know, will have their way—but it did leave a fascinating record of the relative value placed upon foodstuffs.

As with today’s prosciutto di Parma, Westfälischer schinken and jambon de Bayonne, the hams named in Diocletian’s price edict were differentiated by geography: ham of the Menapicae (in modern-day Belgium), ham of the Cerritanae (in the foothills of the Pyrenees), and ham of the Marsicae (in the Abruzzo region of Italy), each set at a hefty maximum of 20 denarii per pound, considerably more than a pound of venison, boar or suckling pig. Sow’s vulva was 24 denarii per pound—but then, if you want the best bits, you have to pay for them.

Quite when or where a man or woman first slathered a pig’s hind leg with salt, and through some alchemic magic converted it into the world’s greatest sandwich filling, is impossible to say. Pigs were domesticated as long ago as 13000BC, and with their hardiness and prodigious reproductive abilities have been a farmer’s favourite ever since. Preserving some of their meat after the slaughter was a logical step.

One of the oldest written references to ham was provided by Cato the Elder (whose middle name was, fittingly, Porcius: ‘Piggy’), who left instructions for ham-making in his De Agri Cultura, written around 160BC. He suggested applying a half-modius (about 4.5 litres) of ground Roman salt to each leg, packing them in a pot for a total of 17 days, then hanging them for two days in a draught.

Moths or worms
“On the third day clean them thoroughly with a sponge, and rub with oil. Hang them in smoke for two days, and the third day take them down, rub with a mixture of oil and vinegar, and hang in the meat-house. No moths or worms will touch them.”

As Diocletian’s edict implies, the consensus among Rome’s gastronomes was that the Celts were the kings of ham. Theirs was a settled, relatively non-migratory culture, one in which both farming and salt production were widely and skilfully practiced. And while they may not have invented the concept of curing a pig’s leg, it was they who refined it into an art.

Strabo, whose Geographica was the Lonely Planet of its day, highlighted the quality of hams from “the Celtic side” of the Pyrenees (occupied by the aforementioned Cerritanae) and from Cantabria in northern Spain. The poet Martial namechecked the Cerritanae and the Marsicae in a hammy epigram, while Athenaeus espoused the quality of Gaulish ham and suggested that banquets in France could easily descend into bloody battles over who got to eat the best bit:

“The bravest man was given the upper part of it, and if any other man disputed his right to it, the two of them fought to the death in single combat.” While a great story, this probably says more about the Roman stereotype of the savage Celt than it does about ham.

Culinary identity
It is the Italians themselves who have supplanted the Gauls as the people most likely to get into a row about ham, so central has it become to their culinary identity. So it’s surprising to learn that prosciutto di Parma, possibly the world’s most famous ham, is—in its current form—something of a newcomer.

While the area’s microclimate is perfect for the production of air-dried hams, it was only the introduction in the 19th century of pig breeds larger and more tender than the tasty but somewhat tough natives, and the invention in 1873 of a slicing machine, that turned Parma ham into a luxury product rather than a crude rustic staple.

Before then, prosciutto di San Daniele ruled supreme. In 1490, San Daniele hams were used as payment to lawyers involved in a dispute over fishing rights. In 1547, dozens of them were carried by two mules from San Daniele to the Council of Trent to help fuel the Catholic Church’s response to the protestant reformation: a more sophisticated version of George Osborne’s Byron burger delivery.

In 1772, the poet Antonio Frizzi wrote a beautiful paean to San Daniele ham, “cleanly sliced in flaming swathes haloed with sinewed fat”—a distinctly Italian literary achievement. General Massena, leader of Napoleon’s forces in northern Italy, clearly agreed with his assessment, sequestering the area’s entire stock of hams after conquering it—a distinctly French act of war.

A drizzly breeze
Here in Britain, poems about ham were thin on the ground. Broadly speaking, ham comes in two forms: air-dried hams—such as jamon iberico, jambon d’Ardennes and the aforementioned Italian classics—made in those mild, dry, windy corners of the world where salted pork can be slowly aged without rotting; and the kind of cooked hams produced in this rain-swept land, and others like it. Attempt to air-dry a ham in a drizzly breeze off the Irish Sea and you’ll end up with a maggot farm rather than prosciutto.

To dry cure a hefty leg of pork sufficiently for it to last in British conditions takes a significant amount of salt, the overwhelming flavour of which could never be entirely mitigated, however much the ham was washed before cooking. Delicate and sophisticated these hams most certainly weren’t, meaning that their production, while of practical use, was rarely a subject of interest to the more refined echelons of society. As a result, ham remained largely absent from the medieval written record.

Even the word itself is a relative neologism. Taken from the Old English term for the hollow of the knee, ‘ham’ only came to be widely applied to cured pork around the 17th century. Previously, ‘gammon’, from the same source as the French ‘jambon’, was more commonly used. Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part I, had a courier carrying “a gammon of bacon and two razors of ginger” to Charing Cross. Around 65 years later, Samuel Pepys, after a visit to the theatre in May 1662, “walked and [ate] some cheesecake and gammon of bacon, but when I was come home I was sick, forced to vomit it up again”.

Presuming he wasn’t just drunk (and knowing Pepys, that’s quite a leap), the diarist’s experience demonstrated how much of a problem dodgy ham could be. Hannah Glasse, in The Art of Cookery (1747), instructed readers how to “chuse” a ham: “Put a knife under the bone that sticks out of the ham, and if it comes out in a manner clean, and has a curious flavour, it is sweet and good; if much smeared and dulled, it is tainted or rusty.”

Acorn-fed pigs
Smoke was often used to help preserve and flavour the meat. In Britain, smoked hams were commonly referred to as Westphalia ham, although this had nothing to do with their actual origin. Authentic Westfälischer schinken is made from acorn-fed pigs, gently smoked over beechwood and juniper branches—somewhat different to Eliza Smith’s British recipe from 1727, which demanded the decidedly less delicate act of hanging them up “high in a chimney”.

The United States has been in thrall to ham for as long as it has existed. In the ham belt, which sounds like something Lady Gaga might wear but is actually a name given to Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, the climate mirrors that of the Old World centres of ham production. Air-dried ‘country’ hams have been produced there for centuries.

The American cookery writer Eliza Leslie, in her Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches (1837), provided one of the earliest references to a ham sandwich: “Cut some thin slices of bread very neatly, having slightly buttered them; and, if you choose, spread on a very little mustard. Have ready some very thin slices of cold boiled ham, and lay one between two slices of bread. You may either roll them up, or lay them flat on the plates.”

Ham sandwich men
The ham sandwich was a popular form of fast food in 19th century London. In 1851, the social researcher Henry Mayhew described the dozens of “ham sandwich men and pig trotter women” who would gather to sell their wares outside the doors of London’s many theatres. The ham sandwich business was a trade for the “wretchedly poor”, low on start-up costs but horribly uncertain. Mayhew calculated the city’s annual consumption of these sandwiches to be a sizeable (and remarkably specific) 436,800 units.

It was around this time that British hams began to change character. In the 1850s, the Harris family constructed what was probably England’s first ice house at their pig farm in Calne, Wiltshire: an idea borrowed from America. Refrigeration negated the need for an aggressive dry cure, meaning that Harris hams were far more tender and subtle than most. The gentle brine used for their Wiltshire cure soon became the national standard for ham production.

Previously, regional variations in breeds and cures meant that British hams varied widely in character, but the popularity of the Wiltshire cure and the increasing dominance of the large white pig destroyed much of that diversity.

It is no coincidence that while Italy has upwards of a dozen regional hams with EU protected status, Britain has just one: Carmarthen ham, a Welsh air-dried ham developed in the second half of the 20th century. It is thanks to the efforts of rare breed farmers like The Ginger Pig and Charcutier that some of that bland homogeneity is finally being rolled back. Their British hams are exceptional.

Still not likely to cause a fight to the death over the best bits—but close.