Brillat-Savarin may have been the philosopher in the kitchen but at times we all have to be philosophical about our cooking. A dish that you’ve exhausted yourself over is a flop, yet on another occasion something you threw together while keeping the ship afloat is a triumph. So it was with a ham that I prepared by taking a series of short cuts – it turned out to be the most delicious for years. Instead of spending time devising my own cure I relied on a double quantity of Jane Grigson’s saumure anglaise. Then my plans to smoke the ham in true country fashion were foiled. So I cooked it in water first and then baked it with hay, which gives the meat an exquisite flavour. And doing it this way gives you one ham with two different flavours.
John, my butcher in Devon, readily agreed to half-bone and salt a leg of pork for 24 hours. He argues that today’s pork needs this treatment to draw out surplus water. If you rear your own pigs as in the past we have, and certainly if you run your pigs on grass like Gloucester Old Spots, you’ll find that there is no need for pre-salting. But if you are buying your meat it’s probably best to take the advice of your butcher. If salted, wash off the surplus and set the meat aside.
Tie the juniper berries, nutmeg, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and cloves in a small square of muslin and add to the hot brine. Leave the cure to cool completely.
Place the pork in a scalded crock or plastic container and pour the cure over the meat. If necessary place a large stone or weight, wrapped in a plastic bag, on top of the meat to keep it below the surface of the brine. After 2 days extract the bag of spices and discard.
I find in cold weather that 10–14 days is about the best length of time to brine – less, of course, in hot weather.
Remove the meat and soak in cold water for 6–10 hours. Place in a preserving pan or large saucepan and cover with cold water. Slowly bring to the boil and taste the water – if it is very salty, pour off and replace with fresh water. Add a cloved onion and the carrots and bay leaves and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and keep the temperature just below simmering for 3–3½ hours. If you prefer to cook the ham right through at this stage it will need longer cooking but a meat thermometer put into the thickest part of the meat will indicate when the meat is cooked.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool for about 1 hour. Then lift out the ham and remove the skin. Leave the meat to cool overnight. Then carve off about one third to half the meat.
Spread a large sheet of heavy-duty foil in a roasting pan and place half the hay on it. Place the ham on top and cover with another layer of hay. Fold up the foil to enclose the meat completely and bake in a moderate oven (Mark 4, 180°C, 350°F) for about 1 hour. Remove from the oven – do not unwrap it – and leave to cool. When the ham is cold, unwrap it and discard the hay, taking care to remove every strand. Leave the ham in a cold place for 6–8 hours before carving. The flavour is superb and, for serving at Easter, is preferable to that of smoked ham.
Serve both flavours of ham on large platters.
© 1987 Geraldene Holt. All rights reserved.