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.
March 17, 2011
As delicious as the golden arches’ minty nod to St. Patrick’s Day—the Shamrock Shake—may be (or as delicious as I remember thinking it was the last time I had one, circa 1978), it’s not exactly Irish. Surprisingly, something on the McDonald’s menu is authentically Irish, and green to boot: its beef.
Not green as in artificially colored (like the shake); green as in “good for the environment.” As in grass-fed, which is the standard in Ireland, unlike in the United States and many other countries, where cows are often fattened with grain on massive feed lots. If you’ve ever been to the Emerald Isle, or even seen a picture of it, you know why: the country really is just lousy with chlorophyll. The first time I visited my Irish friend Annette, a farm girl from County Kilkenny, it was January. Just as I was thinking to myself that I’d never seen so much grass in my life, Annette said she wished I could see the country in summer, when it would really be green.
As for the other kind of green, vis-à-vis Mickey D’s and its burgers, some qualifications are in order: This grass-fed Irish beef is available only in Europe, and only in about one in five burgers. Also, opinions differ on whether even grass-fed beef production is sustainable. But most people can agree that grass-fed is at least an improvement over grain-fed—it’s leaner and its production emits less greenhouse gas. This week the worldwide chain reported that it had increased its export of Irish beef to its European outlets by 37 percent, to 110 million Euros. (Ironically, in the United States McDonald’s has taken flak for importing some of its beef from New Zealand—where grass-fed is also the norm—to supplement its domestic meat purchases.)
All of this underscores another trend in the Republic of Ireland: a renewed emphasis on farming following the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, which had transformed the country from the late 1990s to 2008. During the boom, Irish citizens who had once had to emigrate to find employment (I met Annette in 1992 in Germany, where we both found temporary work as hotel maids) could return or stay home. For the first time in recent history, mass immigration was happening in the other direction. When I last visited, in 2000, this transformation was in its early stages. The dirty old town of Dublin I remembered from my first trip was starting to sprout gleaming skyscrapers and trendy cafés.
Since the bubble burst, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots in the wounded economy. Irish agricultural exports grew almost 10 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to The National, which also cited a government report identifying “the agrifood and fisheries sectors as the country’s most important and largest indigenous industry.” Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, says agriculture and its associated professions account for 10 percent of employment there. Some Irish workers who had abandoned or rejected farming during the 1990s construction boom have returned to the livelihood that sustained their parents and grandparents.
Blessed with abundant pasture land and little need for irrigation, Ireland is well-positioned to help satisfy growing world food demand, the government believes. The strong market in developed nations for artisanal foods is also a natural fit for Irish dairy producers. Teagasc recently reported that Ireland’s milk was rated as having the lowest (tied with Austria) carbon footprint in the European Union, and its meat had one of the lowest.
I remember my first taste of unpasteurized milk from grass-fed Irish cows on Annette’s family’s farm. The cream rose to the top of the pitcher, and even the milk below it was far creamier and more delicious than any dairy I had ever tasted. Maybe McDonald’s should try using it in its Shamrock Shakes. They already contain another ingredient associated with Ireland: carrageenan.
September 28, 2010
Today’s post is by Smithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker.
On my recent trip to Ireland—where I discovered “real” Irish soda bread—I expected to encounter potatoes aplenty, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Traditional champ (or mashed) potatoes and chips (fries) were offered alongside more cosmopolitan spuds like Dauphinoise potatoes, basil-oil potatoes and potato curry spring rolls. At a folk life museum not far from my great-grandmother’s hometown, we saw a dipper (a stick for poking holes in the soil during potato planting) and a sciob (a basket for draining potatoes.) In the courtyard outside stood the local village’s black metal Famine Pot, used to serve soup to the starving in the 1840s, when the potatoes disappeared.
Yet potatoes were never all that old-time residents ate, I learned from Colm Melly, husband of my grandmother’s cousin Sadie and a resident of County Donegal on the northwest coast. In his memoir, “Brighter Days in Donegal,” about growing up in this rural corner of the country before World War II, he explains that local children were skilled at snaring rabbits, hooking sand eels, scouting for beehives and hazelnuts and gathering cockles. A pet piglet was never long for this world. (Grieved children eventually recovered enough to play football with the animal’s dried bladder, however.)
One local delicacy in particular caught my attention: Irish moss, the seaweed formally known as Chondrus crispus, which yields the extract carrageenan.
“When the salt water receded, we collected tufts of wet moss and spread it out to dry on rocks above the high water mark,” Colm’s memoir explains. It produced a medicinal jelly and functioned, he notes, as “an excellent aphrodisiac.” Housewives boiled the “moss” in milk and served it with cream, or as a pudding.
The shopkeeper who sold me a small bag of dried Irish moss promised that I wouldn’t even notice the seaweed taste—if I added enough whiskey, that is. Sadly, Amanda and I did not have whiskey on hand when we tested the milk concoction back here in D.C.
As directed, we rinsed the crunchy purple tufts to eliminate the “small sea shells, stones or crustaceans” that might be lurking within, then soaked them for 20 minutes in cold water. After the greenish fronds softened and unfurled, we dropped the seaweed in a warm pot of 2-percent milk flavored with honey, cinnamon and black pepper.
We let it simmer for a bit longer than the recommended five minutes—neither of us was especially eager to drink it—but while somewhat gluey, the liquid tasted pleasingly sweet, with a maritime tang. It eventually cooled into something more like pudding, which Amanda bravely sampled and declared the equal of any tapioca. (She also had the revolutionary idea of caramelizing the top, a la crème brulee, in a subsequent experiment that may or may not actually take place.)
There are plenty of edgier recipes out there; I saw one for Irish moss lasagna and another for Irish moss salad with apples and mayonnaise. While it smells slightly funky, the seaweed is chock-full of nutrition. For instance, the quarter-pound bag I bought boasted some 3,000 milligrams of potassium (a banana has only about 450 mg).
Still doesn’t sound like something you’d be willing to try? Surprise! You probably already have: carageenan extract is commonly used as a gelling agent in dairy products and toothpaste.
September 21, 2010
Smithsonian magazine staff writer Abigail Tucker wrote today’s post.
Great-grandmother O’Neill and I met only once, when I was one and she was 100, but her Irish soda bread remains a staple of family celebrations. A tiny woman who spoke with a lilting brogue, she never left Brooklyn to go visiting without her iconic loaf in hand—dense and white and crumbling, studded with raisins and caraway seeds, lightly floured on top and inscribed with a cross.
My grandmother, her daughter-in-law, could never quite tease out the recipe (“a pinch of this, a handful of that” was about as far as she got) but various descendants have developed tasty approximations, which are served not only on Saint Patrick’s Day but at family gatherings year-round.
This month I visited Ireland for the first time and stood in the stony ruins of great-grandmother’s girlhood cottage, amid sheep pastures high above a blue bay. But the soda bread served in her native village and elsewhere bore little resemblance to our family’s festive specialty. The standard Irish version is brown and coarse, with nary a raisin or caraway seed in site.
Often called simply “brown bread” or “wheaten bread,” it is the opposite of a holiday food. Thick slices came with every breakfast we ate (smeared with marmalade or butter) and most lunches (accompanying potato and leek soup or in the form of cheese sandwiches.)
Both versions have a crumbling consistency and are made with buttermilk and baking soda, as opposed to yeast. But along with flour and salt, those are the only ingredients in the real thing. Great-grandmother’s classic—and what most Americans think of as Irish soda bread, based on recipes like this—is apparently a much gussied-up version of the no-nonsense original, using more expensive ingredients.
I now love both types, though apparently the bastardization of brown bread is anathema to some. The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread notes, in withering tones, that true Irish soda bread should not include any of the following: orange zest, sour cream, yogurt, chocolate, jalapenos—and especially not Irish whiskey. (“Talk about stereotyping!!!” it declares.)
“Would ‘French Bread’ (15th century) still be ‘French Bread’ if whiskey, raisins, or other random ingredients were added to the mix?” the Society’s site asks. “Would Jewish Matzo (unleavened bread), used to remember the passage of the Israelites out of Egypt, still be Matzo if we add raisins, butter, sugar, eggs, and even orange zest?”
And yet I think it might be worth discreetly lacing your loaf with honey, nuts and wheat germ—I tasted some great variations on this theme in Ireland. The bread is reportedly very easy to make and at this time of year, makes a perfect hearty pairing for full-bodied autumn soups.