A Brief History of English Ham...

…and how Dukeshill is keeping an ancient tradition alive.

A few years ago I was asked by Fortnum and Mason to talk about the history of English ham to a gathering of their account holders. Here, more or less, is the text of the “speech” I gave:

It would be lovely to start this story with an upbeat assessment of English ham, and a rallying call to you all to go out and eat ham all day every day.

Sadly, as you will be aware there’s ham, and then there’s ham! A stroll around the average supermarket will open your eyes to the enormous variety of products purporting to be ham, and pretty unappealing they are. Many of them are not actually ham at all – and perhaps this would be a good moment to clarify exactly what we mean by ham:

The Basics

The word ham refers specifically to the cured hind leg of a pig. There is sometimes some confusion about the difference between ham and gammon. This is understandable, as in modern usage the two have become largely interchangeable. Strictly speaking, a gammon is the bottom end of a whole side of bacon (which includes the back leg), ham is just the back leg cured on its own. At Dukeshill we recognise that the two terms have become more or less interchangeable, with Gammon commonly referring to uncooked ham.

Many of these so called hams in supermarkets are actually made from inferior parts of the pig, such as the shoulder, although there is some effort being made by trading standards to enforce renaming of this sort of product.


Let’s start by looking at the origins of today’s ham, its history, and how it came to be the product it is today.

In the last century, in the days before mass produced food, farm workers were able to provide for themselves. They used their supplies wisely, and did not waste food unnecessarily. The family pig was an important asset; it was tended throughout the year, growing fat on potatoes and greens grown in the plot behind the cottage, and in the autumn it was turned loose to root out acorns, windfall apples, and grain left in the field after harvest.

Then once the weather had turned, and it was nearing winter, once all the spare food had been used up and the animal was almost unable to walk from obesity, it was time for the killing. This was a great occasion, a celebration of food and provisions; for hundreds of years autumn slaughter had sustained families for the harsh, scarce months of winter. Originally it was a way of overcoming the lack of winter fodder for animals, but even when this problem had been resolved, the cottage pig remained because it had become part of the domestic economy that worked; it gave the year a structure and a focus for a family and its food.

The killing was a savage, messy business, but it was essential; a family that could not kill its pig could starve. The animal was their insurance, their food bank, and they used every part of it.

Not much of the cottager’s pig was eaten fresh; most of it was salted down so that it would last through the winter. But there were pieces of offal, blade bones and spare ribs; what a feast they must have provided while they lasted – roast meat after months of old bacon and vegetables.

As the family sat round the table, gnawing the bones from their first meal of fresh pork, they might reflect that they had succeeded in their work; they had looked after their pig and now it would, with luck, fill their stomachs over the coming months.

Once a pig had been killed, the kitchen was busy. All the bits and pieces that could not be salted or eaten straight away were made into sausages, pies, faggots, black puddings and brawn, and the animal’s lard was rendered down and stored for the coming months. All these products are still made today, and enjoyed throughout the country.

Once the cottager’s pig had been killed, the fresh meat had been eaten and the trimmings were in the kitchen, the rest of the animal was prepared for curing. Two sides or flitches would be all that remained, but once salted and possibly smoked, these provided bacon and ham through the winter and into the spring.

For bacon, the sides were taken to a cool dry shed and laid on stone slabs or in big troughs. They were rubbed and covered with salt and saltpetre (which is a great natural preservative, and also “fixes” the pink colour of the meat, which would otherwise have the grey-brown colour of roast pork). Other ingredients might be added too. Some families used treacle or molasses; others favoured tipping beer over the meat, or rubbing in herbs and spices. The meat was tended and turned as curing progressed, more salt was rubbed in, and the brine and the juices that formed had to be drained off. It was patient work that took several days or weeks to complete, but eventually the pork became bacon, the sides could be divided up, and the pieces hung from the ceiling or walls until they were needed. To keep longer, some pieces might be smoked over smoldering oak fires, or hung high in the chimney for weeks until they had a lovely dark sheen, but this process must have made very dry, tough meat.

Regional Cures

Nowadays we still hear about some of the regional cures that developed over the decades. Two that are still well known today are the York Ham and the Wiltshire. If fact, Wiltshire is a county that has perhaps the longest association with the large scale production of Hams and Bacon. Even its major city of Swindon owes its name to the ancient Swine Downe. The county’s association with commercial bacon curing is largely a geographical accident. The county stands neatly between Bristol and London, and in the 19th century before the Great Western Railway was built, Irish pigs were driven along the main road that runs through the county. It was at one of the regular resting points, in the town of Calne, that the Harris Family started the first large scale bacon factory. What started as a small shop run by Sarah Harris in about 1808 quickly grew. The real turning point came when George Harris visited America in 1847. There he saw bacon being cured throughout the year, even in the hottest weather, thanks to ice-cooled curing houses. So ice was the key – it could transform curing from a task limited to the winter into a continuous process.

By 1856 the Harris family had installed their first Ice House. In hard winters ice was cut from local ponds and the Calne canal.

By the 1860s the Harris family had more or less perfected what is now known as the Wiltshire cure. The advent of cooler processes meant that they didn’t have to use as salty a cure as others. Indeed, the curing takes place not in stacks of dry salt, but in vats of brine.

The traditional Wiltshire Cure is hugely different to the old fashioned dry cures, but properly done, it can still give a delicious result – moister and milder to be sure, and without the long keeping qualities of its dry cured cousins, but a very pleasant product nonetheless.

Traditional Cures vs. Mass-Produced

Sadly, the introduction of mass production using brine has opened the door to those manufacturers who chase profit at the expense of quality.

The first thought that occurred to these manufacturers was that of yield: A dry cured ham has lost about a third of its weight by the time it is cured, a Wiltshire ham may have lost none. How easy it would be, then, to add water to the product – and so injecting was born. By the middle of the twentieth century, gullible consumers were feathering the pockets of these manufactures, by paying good money for nothing but water.

Pork was being fed into giant multi-needle injectors, and pumped beyond recognition with vast amount of brine, mixed with phosphates and other modern chemicals designed to persuade the liquid to stay there during further processing.

It wasn’t long before these manufacturers realised that they weren’t fully making use of another valuable commodity – time. It takes weeks or months for dry salt to spread itself evenly through a leg of pork, and several days for the brine in a Wiltshire Cured ham. But what if we speed things up a little? And so tumbling was born. The bloated bacon and ham, fresh from the multi-needle injector, is thereby introduced into a huge rotating drum where it is massaged and pummelled into submission. The vigorous workout has two effects – it dissolves some of the protein in the meat, which when cooked, sets to a rubbery rather than a meaty texture, but it also means that a ham can be ready for cooking within hours of slaughter – a far cry from our cottager waiting patiently for months for his delicious ham to cure. Of course there is more than one downside to this rush for profit. During the curing process of a traditional ham there is a whole gamut of processes taking place – microbiological, enzymatic, chemical, which give a mature ham its wonderful depth of flavour. Cut out the time, and you cut out the flavour. You are left with nothing but a pink rubbery mess- a poor excuse for a product with such a noble heritage.

How sad it is too that in a country with such a wonderful history of curing, we should be bullied into accepting such a debased product. Italy is still rightly proud of its magnificent prosciuttos – Parma and San Daniele, Spain has its Jamon Iberico, its Serrano and Pata Negra, and France its Jambon de Bayonne. Even America, which rarely would deserve a mention in a gastronomic “Who’s Who”, takes its hams more seriously than us – a good Kentucky ham made from hogs gorged on peanuts is great. The yanks do have some atrocious hams as well, mind!

All is not lost however; there are still a handful of manufacturers around the country who take the old fashioned route – and thankfully a few stores who are in business to give the customers the best product available.

At Dukeshill we aim to go that little bit further in producing a product in which no concessions are made to the quality.

We use three of the most traditional cures – two “dry cures” and the Wiltshire Cure.

Dukeshill York Ham

Perhaps the most basic is the York Ham, which we produce using almost exactly the same methods employed by the cottager of old. Specially selected legs of pork are first butchered in a slightly unusual way: Rather than the typical square cut leg employed my most modern manufacturers, we use a long-cut leg. Essentially this involves removing the leg from the rest of the pig by following the shape and seams of the muscle, rather than just cutting across the muscle. Were we to use the standard cut, there would be a large cut face that during the lengthy curing and maturing process would become unpalatably dry and tough.

The legs are trimmed up neatly, and then rubbed all over with a strong brine solution, before having salt massaged into the rind. A thin sprinkling of pure dry saltpetre is then applied to the cut face of the leg, and then they are laid on a bed of dry salt. A thick layer of more salt is then applied, before laying down another layer of legs.

The resulting stack of legs is then left in the chill for three days, during which time some of the salt is absorbed into the meat, and a great deal of juice is drawn out. This initial flow of liquid can result in the salt no longer being in direct contact with the meat, so on the third day the legs are brushed off and re-stacked with fresh salt. This process is repeated at intervals, but essentially the legs remain in salt for about three weeks, depending slightly on their size.

Obviously, during this time the salt is being distributed throughout the leg, but there are all sorts of more complicated processes going on than just osmosis.

I mentioned a little earlier about the typical pink colour of English ham. This is achieved due to a chemical reaction between the haemoglobin in blood with chemicals called nitrites. Our mass production friends would pump these nitrites into the leg as part of the brine. We however are using Saltpetre, which is Potassium Nitrate. To convert Nitrate into Nitrite we rely on micro-organisms naturally present on the meat. For this reason, traditional curing has to be carried out at a considerably warmer temperature (albeit still chilled) than the very cold chill used in the modern equivalent. In this way, the reliance on micro-organisms has more in common with cheese manufacture or brewing.

After three weeks or so in salt the hams look quite different. They have shrunk to about 70% of their original size, and feel rigid in comparison to when they were fresh.

Before being hung up they then undergo a process known as weathering, where they are stacked and kept at ambient for a couple of days while they come to room temperature. They are then soaked overnight in fresh water, which leaches out some of the excess salt near to the surface.

They can then be hung up in drying rooms – specially designed, well ventilated rooms with constant air movement and controlled humidity. For the first day they are subjected to warm air, to help dry the surface of the ham, and then left at ambient temperature. It makes surprisingly little difference to the finished product whether the ambient temperature is the cool of winter or the warmth of summer. – the time taken to dry and mature will vary slightly, that is all. For the first three weeks in the drying rooms, the hams continue to lose weight, but gradually this weight loss decreases as they become hard and dry to the touch. A mature ham from the drying room has the hardness and dryness of shoe leather.

After three weeks in the drying rooms, the hams are indistinguishable from the finished mature ham; dry and leathery, with a delicious rich meaty aroma. Cook one and cut in half however, and the reason that we mature them for three months instead of three weeks becomes immediately noticeable. The flavour lacks the rounded mellow flavour of the mature ham, but just as important is the uneven colour. It is likely that in the middle of the ham, surrounded by pink meat, will be a region that is grey brown. As we know from earlier, this is a sign that the saltpetre has not yet reacted to give the pink colour that we expect from our ham. This is a great visual indicator of the importance of time in the curing process.

Dukeshill Shropshire Black Ham

The second dry cured ham we produce is a wonderfully distinctive ham which we know as the Shropshire Black – or the Fortnum’s Black in relation to today’s talk! The Black Ham is the direct descendant of the Bradenham Ham. The Bradenham didn’t begin its life in Shropshire, or Wiltshire for that matter; it was invented by Lord Bradenham in 1781, and migrated from Bradenham Manor in Buckinghamshire in the 19th Century. The story is that the butler there fell out with his employer, moved to Wiltshire and took the recipe with him. He set up the Bradenham Ham Company in 1871, and continued to manufacture on that site for almost 100 years. Sadly, the unstoppable march of big business took its toll. Acquisition after acquisition took place, and before long the manufacture of so-called Bradenhams was a tiny satellite within a huge Corporation. A company like that needed to make a specialist product like dry cured ham like it needed a hole in its head. So, having made sure its lawyers had safely trademarked the name, they stopped production as soon as they could. Fortunately for the product, people move jobs, and not to put too fine a point on it, the Bradenham Recipe, if not its name, is now in safe hands.

Dukeshill Wiltshire Ham

The final ham that we produce is a traditional Wiltshire Cure. We use the traditional Wiltshire Cure, and the Hams spend almost a week submerged in the brine, before being taken out and allowed to mature for a further week. The resulting ham has a lovely mild flavour, and a moist, but never wet, texture.

It lends itself very well to further processing, and we will often present it glazed with a very traditional finish of Honey and Mustard. Others prefer to coat the ham in Marmalade, or even chutney – all of which gives an attractive appearance when serving the ham. And now we offer the superb and hugely popular St. George’s Ham, a Wiltshire cured ham glazed with spiced oranges, cinnamon, mace and cloves.

The main thing that we are interested in is the quality of the meat itself. We are looking for a very particular configuration in our legs – just enough fat on the surface, and a good marbling of fat through the meat. If this is not present, the ham (particularly if dry cured) will be tough and lacking succulence. The meat needs to be bright and fresh, the fat firm and bright white. If the pigs have been poorly cared for, ill-fed or abused, the results are easy to spot in the meat.

You can read a little about what makes our ham so much better than modern, “supermarket-style” formed ham in this post.