St. Mary’s Maryland. I’m hot on the trail of a ham. Not just any ham, you understand, but the genuine, Maryland stuffed ham described by one connoisseur as “the ultimate: moist, slightly chewy, peppery, pungent but not astringent, and with a rounded, lingering bouquet”. Well! Clearly not to be missed.
This is not the first ham in my life. I was brought up on York ham whose celebrity has spread beyond the shores of England, to Paris and beyond. York ham is moist, plump and mildly piquant, at its best cold — just right to launch a child on a life-long love of ham. The breed of pig is important; a porker tends to be long and muscled, supplying lean meat best eaten as fresh pork. (Do not be distracted by the term “fresh ham”, this simply means a fresh leg of pork). For the best ham you need a baconer, a well-built buxom beast with plenty of fat for preserving as bacon and ham. In Yorkshire we raised LargeWhites and my mother would shake her head: “That’s what you need for ham, these new high-yield pigs, they’re not the same”.
This was World War II, and we fattened and shared a pig with my aunt and uncle. Every six months the poor pig departed and my uncle (my father had been drafted) would bring home a carload of enamel basins full of nameless, blood-stained bits of pig. He was a mild, amiable man, no match for old Emily our cook, who shamelessly bagged all the best bits while I took it all in from an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen. My mother was too squeamish.
For two or three weeks we lived literally high off the hog, gobbling up pork roasts, spareribs, kidneys and ending with the cracklings – in those days before the freezer, we had to eat it all. The bacon and ham came later, having been handed to an expert for curing. “I don’t mess wi’ that!” said Emily. I later learned that the ham had been dry cured with salt, saltpeter and sugar for up to two weeks – length of time depends on size of ham and the intensity of salt that is preferred.
Salting is just one way to preserve a ham so it can be stored in a cool place without spoiling. It can also be wet cured in brine, or corned in brine with flavorings such as molasses, vinegar, herbs, spices such as paprika, mustard, allspice, and always with peppercorns (hence the term “corned”). After any of these three cures, the ham may then be cold smoked, adding to it the aroma of oak, fruitwood or hickory – many old kitchen fireplaces have a recess to suspend hams and sausages for smoking.
After curing, a ham is hung to dry and mature, hooked through the tendons of the hock. (In a peculiarly painful medieval torture, criminals were “hamstrung” in precisely the same way. Cutting these tendons is crippling , leading to the expression “hamstrung”.) Good hams are aged for at least three months and sometimes up to 2 years, the longer the better. A cool, dry, airy place is essential — have you noticed that all famous hams come from the mountains? Italian prosciutto di Parma (in the Apennines), French jambon de Bayonne (in the Pyrenees) and Spanish serrano (Sierra Morena) are examples.
In Yorkshire with its damp climate we were much less favored. The ham came home wrapped in cheesecloth and aging it was a race against maggots and my mother’s vigilance. The method of cooking was unvaried; she cut off a generous chunk, sawing through the shank bone, then simmered it with apple and spices, allowing 20 minutes a pound, plus 20 minutes. The ham was left to cool, the skin was stripped, and we ate thick slices of fat and lean meat with hot mustard and garden crab apple jelly as condiments. Dare I whisper that the fat was the best part?
It was many years before I encountered a ham the equal of those from Yorkshire (boarding school did not add to my gastronomic education). But when I started to teach cooking at the Cordon Bleu in London, the delicatessens of Soho were around the corner. I pursued the British Bradenham molasses-cured ham which led detective Lord Peter Wimsey to identify a criminal. I made the acquaintance of German Westphalian ham with a juniper smoke, of Prague ham smoked over beech sawdust and at its best hot, and of cousins such as the Italian capocollo, pork shoulder cured in wine and nutmeg.
And here I must insist that true ham is what it says. It must be made from the fleshy hind leg of the pig – we squat on our own hams, which are similarly padded. The bone is best left in to add moisture and flavor, though a few types of ham are traditionally aged after boning. The bone is often removed from commercial hams to make slicing easy. Beware, too, of precooked commercial hams which are often “cured” by injecting them with preservatives including water to increase weight, then painted with liquid smoke. Need I say more.
All these are cooked hams, but in France I got hooked on jambon de campagne, country ham which is invariably smoked and thinly sliced to serve raw. It was in Venice that the full glory of raw ham burst upon me. Every day we would tuck in to fragile pink slices of prosciutto from neighboring San Daniele, comparing them with the drier, more full-bodied ham from further west around Parma. I learned to eat ham with figs or arugula and grapefruit segments instead of the usual melon. Now we visit our son near Perpignan on the Spanish border, we feast on jamón ibérico, made from black Iberian pigs.
When I moved to Washington D.C. I found hams all over the place – dry, salty Smithfield hams from Virginia, cured from hogs left to rootle in the peanut fields, then dry salted and heavily smoked with apple and hickory. Queen Victoria had a standing order for six Smithfields to be sent to her each week.. Hams from Pennsylvania are different again as less salt is needed in the cooler climate. I once took a ham from Georgia back to France and our Burgundian neighbors were enchanted by its soft rich flavor, the result of a peach and peanut diet. Indeed the feed given to a pig – wild acorns (serrano), peaches (Georgia) or just household slops, is the third vital factor in flavoring a ham, the breed of pig and the cure being the other two.
This long odyssey leads me at last to Maryland and its green stuffed hams. Local tradition calls for ham to be cured by corning. The stuffing is a zesty mixture of green cabbage, kale, celery or watercress (recipes vary) with plenty of peppercorns, hot red pepper, mustard and celery seed. Before cooking, generous slits as big as your thumb are cut all over the ham, through to the bone, then the stuffing is pushed down into them and the rest piled on top. After wrapping in cheesecloth, the ham is simmered until tender – the whole process is quite laborious but I’ve developed a quick version below.
So, when you sit down to your Easter ham, be it a spicy stuffed Maryland ham, or a few slices of Virginia ham sandwiched in a fresh biscuit, or slivers of genuine prosciutto di Parma please think of me.
MARYLAND STUFFED HAM ROLLS
Instead of stuffing and baking a whole ham, I’ve adapted the traditional Maryland recipe for individual ham rolls. Buy the very best cooked country ham you can find and ask for it thinly sliced. The choice of greens is up to you, but they should be peppery, and very green to contrast with the pink ham. I like to serve ham rolls cold, in Maryland style with fresh biscuits, but they are delicious hot with rice, or simply with a green salad. Watch out, they are quite spicy!
3/4 lb thinly sliced cooked country ham
5-6 green (Savoy) cabbage leaves
l/2 lb kale
Green tops l bunch scallions
Leaves from a bunch of celery or watercress
l l/2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
l l/2 teaspoons mustard seed
l l/2 teaspoons celery seed
Salt and pepper
Few drops red hot pepper sauce
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Discard stalks from cabbage and kale, loosely roll leaves and shred them as finely as possible. Chop spring onion tops and celery or watercress. Add all the greens to boiling water and parboil until wilted, 2-3 minutes. Drain, refresh with cold water and leave to cool and drain thoroughly.
Cut eight l0-inch/25-cm squares of foil and lay them on the work surface. Assemble a
6-inch/l5-cm square with pieces of sliced ham on each foil square, lining up the ham with the edge of foil nearest to you. Bring a large shallow pan of water to a boil.
In a bowl mix the cooked greens, red pepper flakes, mustard and celery seed with salt, pepper and a few drops of hot red pepper sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spread this stuffing on the ham, taking it right to the edge. Roll up the ham with the help of the foil, starting with the edge furthest away and working towards you so that the completed roll sits just on the edge of foil nearest you. Now wrap the ham roll in foil, rolling away from you. (The same principle as making Japanese nori). Twist ends to seal the foil and close seam with sticky tape to prevent water leakage. Repeat with remaining rolls.
Immerse rolls in boiling water and set a heatproof plate on top to keep them submerged. Simmer gently 30-40 minutes – a skewer inserted in the center of a roll should be hot to the touch when withdrawn after 30 seconds. Drain rolls. If serving hot, Let rolls cool a few minutes, then strip off foil and serve. If serving cold, leave to cool in the foil before peeling. Makes 8 rolls to serve 4 as a main course.