April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
October 30, 2012
The commemoration of the last day of the ancient Celtic calendar was a major influences on how we celebrate Halloween, but one significant tradition has (thankfully?) not survived. Kale, that leafy salad green, was a tool of marriage divination, identifying life partners for men and women in ancient Scotland and Ireland.
But first, some context: According to the Celtic calendar, on the morning of November 1, spirits and the supernatural “bogies” were free to roam the night of the 31st and into the morning as the new year represented the transition between this world and the otherworld. To fend off the spirits and to celebrate the coming year, Scottish youths participated in superstitious games on Halloween night that were thought to bring good fortune and predict the future marital status of partygoers.
Scottish bard Robert Burns describes the typical festivities for the peasantry in the west of Scotland in his poem, “Halloween,” originally published in both English and Scots in 1785. The 252-line poem follows the narrative of 20 characters and details many—often confusing—folk practices: Burning nuts, winnowing the corn, and the cutting of the apple:
“Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween
Full of fun that night.”
Also included among the party games mentioned in Burns’ poem is our first Halloween kale matchmaking activity, known as ”pou (pull) the stalks.”
1) Pou (Pull) the Stalks
In this Scottish tradition, instead of trick-or-treating, young, eligible men and women were blindfolded and guided into a garden to uproot kale stalks. After some time digging in the dirt, the piece of kale selected was analyzed to determine information about the participant’s future wife or husband.
In Burns’ poem, for example, the character of Willie, tries his luck and pulls a stalk as curly as a pig’s tail. He isn’t too happy about it:
“Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander’d through the bow-kail,
And pou’t, for want o’ better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow’t that night.”
The analysis was pretty literal according to Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal—meaning poor Willie’s curly-Q’d root didn’t look too promising. Characteristics of the stalk were thought to reveal signs about the potential partner: A short and stunted stalk meant just that for the player’s future mate. Tall and healthy, withered and old, and so on—even the kale’s flavor was thought to hint at the disposition of the future spouse (bitter, sweet, etc.). The amount of dirt clinging to the stalk post pou was believed to determine the size of the dowry or fortune the participant should expect from their husband or wife. A clean root meant poverty was in the cards.
“A lad and lassie, hand in hand,
Each pull a stock of mail;
And like the stock, is future wife
Or husband, without fail.
If stock is straight, then so is wife,
If crooked, so is she;
If earth is clinging to the stock,
The puller rich will be.
And like the taste of each stem’s heart,
The heart of groom or bride;
So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks,
And let the fates decide.”
2) Cook Up Some Colcannon
If you’re not satisfied with letting the “fates” determine the man or woman you will spend the rest of your life with, perhaps this Irish tradition may interest you. For Hallowe’en—what Christianity would later call All Hallows’ Eve—kale was used in the traditional dish, colcannon, or “white-headed cabbage” when translated from its Gaelic roots cal ceannann’. Charms hidden in the mush of cabbage, kale and chopped onions, were thought to determine who at the table would be the next to tie the knot. If you were lucky enough to find a ring concealed in your meal, no longer would you spend your Halloween dinner single and sighing—wishing you’d find a piece of metal in your food. The other hidden object was a thimble, which meant the life of a spinster for the lady lucky enough to discover it. Eating the dinner trinket-free seems to be the best of the three situations, but I suppose it depends on who you’re asking. If the Halloween dinner were up to me, the only thing on the menu would be candy.
February 3, 2012
Guest blogger Dana Bate last wrote for Food & Think about Salisbury’s medieval market.
England’s historic city of Bath is known for its Georgian architecture and Roman baths and as the one-time residence of Jane Austen. But the city is also the birthplace of two of the country’s famous yeasted buns: the Sally Lunn and the Bath Bun, both of which have a fabled and dubious history.
Of the two buns, the Sally Lunn has the plainest appearance and flavor: at nearly six-inches in diameter with a soft, domed top, it is like a brioche bun on steroids. But its simplicity belies the elaborate and fanciful story that accompanies its history.
According to the legend, the Sally Lunn Bun was invented by a 17th-century Huguenot refugee from France named Solange Luyon, who landed a job at a bakery in Bath. She introduced the baker there to the French style of egg- and butter-enriched breads, which residents began to call Sally Lunn Buns, in a perversion of her French name. The buns were served at public breakfasts and teas and soon became a part of Bath’s baking tradition. The original recipe was lost in the late 1800s, but (the story goes) the recipe was rediscovered in the 1930s, when it was found in a secret cupboard in Sally Lunn’s former home.
So-called Bath Buns, on the other hand, are smaller and sweeter than Sally Lunn Buns, with a lump of sugar baked into the bottom, crushed sugar sprinkled over the top and, often, currants or raisins swirled throughout. Like many aspects of Bath’s history, this bun, too, comes with a story.
The most popular involves an 18th-century physician named William Oliver, who would treat patients visiting the city’s Roman baths and, allegedly, furnish them with sweet, yeasted treats called Bath Buns, which he supposedly invented. As the story goes, Oliver went on to invent the Bath Oliver – a hard, dry cracker, similar to a water cracker—after the Bath Buns made his patients pack on a few too many pounds.
Unfortunately, both stories are full of as many holes as a fluffy loaf of brioche.
According to British food historian Laura Mason, there is no record of the Solange Luyon story before the 20th century, and, in her opinion, the whole Sally Lunn tale is complete fiction. “People were very fond of making up these kind of stories,” she says, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another source describes the Sally Lunn story as a fabrication by a woman named Marie Byng-Johnson, who bought a rundown townhouse in 1937 and concocted a story about a French refuge and a mysterious cupboard to attract visitors and popularize the site as a tourist attraction.
Some claim the name “Sally Lunn” comes from the recipe for “solilemne,” a rich, yeasted, French breakfast cake popular during the same period, but, while plausible, the connection has never been confirmed.
As for the Bath Bun, the recipe likely derives from the Bath Cake and has no connection to either Dr. Oliver or his overweight patients.
In both cases, Munson says, the cakes likely link to an 18th-century baking tradition of yeast-leavened rich breads, which were popular for breakfast. As for the legendary stories…well, they’re just that: stories. Good for a laugh and not much else.
But whether the stories true or false, the charms of the buns themselves cannot be denied: a sweet, sticky Bath Bun goes perfectly with a hot cup of tea, and a Sally Lunn Bun makes a fine partner for a bowl of soup, regardless of its dubious legacy.
November 9, 2011
From guest blogger Dana Bate:
I knew exactly what the Salisbury Cathedral would look like before I ever stepped foot in Salisbury. In college, I studied under a charismatic professor of British art who lectured enthusiastically about John Constable and his romantic depictions of the English countryside, including several paintings of the Salisbury Cathedral. I knew the spire, completed in 1320, was the tallest in England. I knew the main body was completed in the mid-1200s and that the cathedral itself sat on a lovely slice of countryside in Wiltshire.
What I did not know is that, in addition to housing the world’s oldest working clock, the cathedral sits adjacent to one of England’s oldest working markets: the Salisbury Charter Market. Surrounded by streets with names like Oatmeal Row and Butchers Row, the open-air market began in the early 1200s, at a time when what we now call “farmers’ markets” were merely “markets” and “eating local” was merely “eating.”
Today, the Charter Market (named for its consecration under the city’s charter in 1227 by King Henry III) operates on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., selling everything from local honey to fresh doughnuts and farmhouse butter. Modern tents and food trucks have replaced the medieval food stalls, but most of the customers are still locals, picking up fresh meat, fish and veg as part of their weekly shopping routine. You’ll also find your share of tourists wandering through the market before or after exploring the cathedral.
Given the history of the surrounding area, the market would be a great place to pick up some food for a picnic before touring the cathedral, to get a taste of Salisbury’s medieval market culture. And, being a mere two-hour drive southwest of London, Salisbury is a fun day trip if you want to explore the English countryside. (It is not, however, the source of Salisbury steak.) If you find yourself in the area and plan on picnicking around the cathedral, here are some options sure to satisfy your cultural cravings.
Pritchetts: You’ll smell this stand before you see it. Owned by the 97-year-old butchery of the same name, this food truck is known for its hog roast: a sandwich of sliced roast pork, onion-sausage stuffing and applesauce, all served on a soft, floury roll known as a bap. The cook, Scott McDaniel, makes all the components from scratch, from the pork sausage in the stuffing to the applesauce. Wiltshire is known for its pork, and McDaniel hails from Austin, Texas, another city known for its pig products. It will come as no surprise, then, that he takes his pork very seriously. The stand sells other items like burgers and bacon butties, but the hog roast is what draws the crowds.
The Olive Bar: It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the many barrels of olives at The Olive Bar. There’s the Sorrento (basil, garlic, hot chili), the Black Maroc (herbs de Provence, orange peel, cardamom), and the Greek Mammoth (basil, garlic), all swimming in huge barrels of olive oil. There are dozens of other olives, too, not to mention the hunks of feta with herbs de Provence and vats of butter bean salad and hummus. Grab a loaf of their ciabatta or focaccia, and you’ll have a filling meal on your hands.
Long Crichel Bakery: Long Crichel is, first and foremost, a bread bakery. Their organic breads, made by hand from locally-sourced ingredients and baked in a wood-fired oven, have won several awards, and the bakery’s Five-Seed Sourdough remains one of the most popular. The stand at the Charter Market also sells pastries and savories, everything from quiche and sausage rolls to the award-winning treacle tart and flapjacks. The latter two would make excellent picnic desserts.
Fonthill Glebe Wines: English wine? You bet. This stand sells everything from Pinot Blanc to fruit wines made from elderflowers, gooseberries and apples. The adventurous among you might want to try the mead, the ancient alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water and said to be the ancestor of all modern fermented drinks. A word of advice, however: Steer clear of the booze if you plan to climb the cathedral’s 400-foot spire. The hike is a doozy.
November 4, 2011
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.
So goes one version of a popular rhyme about Guy Fawkes, whose failed plot to assassinate the King of England in 1606 1605—Fawkes was caught under the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder—got him hanged, drawn and quartered. Sure enough, 400 years later, the act of treason is still remembered: November 5th, known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, is celebrated throughout England with fireworks, bonfires and the burning of the traitor in effigy. The celebrations once held an anti-Catholic undercurrent (Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholic), but that has all but disappeared today.
I first heard of Guy Fawkes Night in a 1992 cookbook, The Inspired Vegetarian, by British author Louise Pickford. She includes a recipe for “Miff’s Spicy Pumpkin Soup,” which her Aunt Miff used to make for a Guy Fawkes fireworks party every year. She recalls that “all the children would spend hours preparing pumpkin lanterns to hang in the garden. We would watch the fireworks, huddled around the bonfire, with mugs of steaming pumpkin soup.”
I asked my cousin’s husband, who grew up in Exeter, in the southwest of England, whether he recalls any particular Guy Fawkes Night foods, and he couldn’t think of any—with the possible exception of beer. But up north, particularly in Yorkshire, there are a couple of treats that are associated with the holiday. Both revolve around treacle, or sugar syrup.
The first is parkin, sometimes spelled perkin, a gingerbread-like oatmeal cake usually made with dark molasses and golden syrup (a light sugar syrup—the closest American equivalent would probably be corn syrup). One of its features is that it keeps well; in fact, many recipes advise aging the cake for several days to let the flavors develop.
Pinning down food origins is always tricky, but the BBC reports that parkin may have originated with the Vikings and was certainly around by the time of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Why it’s associated with November 5th is unknown—one possibility is that it dates to the Viking Feast of Thor, which was celebrated around the same time of year with bonfires and a similar cake—but some in Yorkshire even call the date Parkin Day. The one place that refuses to serve parkin, though, according to the BBC, is Fawkes’ alma mater in York.
The other Guy Fawkes-related treat, also from Yorkshire, is bonfire toffee, sometimes called treacle toffee. Also made with black treacle (or molasses), golden syrup and Demerara sugar (a light brown sugar), it’s made by boiling the sugars to a very high temperature with water and cream of tartar (other recipes call for butter and/or condensed milk), then letting it cool in a sheet pan until it becomes brittle. The pieces are broken off with a hammer. I couldn’t find any information on why this candy is associated with Guy Fawkes Night in particular. But, for a sweet tooth like me, who needs a reason?
Of course, in recent years another candy-centric fall holiday from America has been creeping into British culture, leaving some people there to worry that, in time, gunpowder and treason will be all but “forgot.”