The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ancient Cookery

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Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné
Jeff Berry
(Number 18 in the Series, August 2002)

Alexandre is, err, cures a Ham

Don't ask me why I decided to cure a ham, I just did. Well, partly it was because I was getting tired of cooler camping and wondered about some more period methods of getting food to surive until eating. Cured meats go back a long way, there are methods in several of medieaval cookbooks, but for my first outing I thought I'd take more advantage of modern science and get the current methods down pat before working backwards.

Some websearches turned up a variety of bits of information, including a couple of very ueseful ones.

The first step was to try to find food-grade potassium nitrate, aka saltpeter. Many sites advised getting it a pharmacy. Not in New York City, I'm afraid. what you get when you ask are some very odd looks. However, I found another webbsite, The Ingredient Store which would sell me saltpeter. A few dollars later, I had a pound of the stuff, which may well be a lifetime supply.

On May 12, I mixed up my cure. I used:

for my ten pound (or so) ham. Half the cure was rubbed over the ham, which I then placed shank-down on a rack in a stainless steel stock pot in the refrigerator. One week later, I pulled it out of the fridge and packed the rest of the cure all over the beast. Most of the previous application had been absorbed by this point. Then I went away.

On June 16, I pulled the item out of the fridge again. Most of the cure had been absorbed. The areas over the skin and fat still had some crystals, but the exposed meat had pretty much sucked it all up. I poured out the sludge at the bottom, which was not really very disgusting at all. The salt had drawn out some water, but the water drawn was fairly pure, I think. The sludge looked just like a water salt mix, rather than some kind of bloody mess. After I knocked off the excess cure, I lightly rubbed the ham with vegetable oil, as Missouri advised, then wrapped it in a couple of layers of brown paper - grocery bags. I tied it off with twine and left enough of a tail so that I could hang it up by the shank.

I took it in to my office, since the climate control is better there, to hang it up for the final curing. I decided that hanging it from the drop ceiling probably wasn't a good idea. Likewise, hanging it from the sprinkler pipe was out -- if the pipe broke, the ham would get wet defeating the purpose of a dry cure. I settled on a coat rack, but the ham rested against the side which was aesthetically unsatisfying, so I wedged an IBM RS/6000 DSP card between the cord and the rack and that got the ham far enough out from the rack to satisfy me. Then I went away again.

It is now August 1st.. On the 8th, we will depart for Pennsic and I will take the ham, with the intention of cooking it on the 9th.

To be continued ...

I have been horribly remiss. It is now November and I have not yet completed this article. Allow me to rectify the situation.

The ham was a huge success at Pennsic. Friday, I got up early and put it in a pot full of fresh water to soak and get some of the salt out. I let it soak for about 6 or 8 hours - from as soon as I got up to after I showered after returning from the fighting and got a fire built. I didn't want to boil the ham, I wanted to bake it. I had no oven, so I put it in a large pot with just a little water in the bottom, and put it in the firepit. Then I built a sort of cage around the pot of wood to try to simulate an oven as much as possible. I cooked it for, hmm, three hours, perhaps? Until it was done, which I tested for in the time honoured fashion, by wiggling the bone and seeing if it was loose.

Out of the fire it came and I began to carve. Down one section there was a stripe of something green - I mean bright green! Not a kind of greeny thing, but green. It was surrounded on all sides by lovely pinky ham, though. So I more or less chopped out that entire portion - a streak all the way through - and served the rest. No one died. No one got sick. It tasted great, and it tasted like ham is supposed to taste.

I just started another ham, this one about seven pounds. The ham was such a hit, I'll need several for ham night at Pennsic this year.

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Comments are welcome.
Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné, Jeff Berry,

Copyright Jeff Berry
Originally webbed 1 August 2002
Last modified 20 November 2002