Let’s Hear It For The Humble Ham Sandwich - By Martin Hesp

An avid traveller and foodie with over 40 years experience in journalism, Martin Hesp has won multiple awards and in this article he will explore the background of the UK’s favourite sandwich filling. If you would like to enjoy more of Martin’s writings, his blog features hundreds of articles centred around food and travel as well as the odd few that would be better characterised as general musings.

Martin Hesp Standing in A Forrest

So, without any further ado, let’s hear it for the humble ham sandwich…

Despite the hit and miss weather this summer, many of us will have enjoyed a few picnics in recent weeks. Or perhaps we’ll have called at the kind of establishment with a garden which specialises in a high tea, or visited a village fete, or been at some sporting event where they’ve served sandwiches and other easily portable forms of nourishment. If we’ve enjoyed any such meal, many of us will have enjoyed the salty savoury satisfaction offered by some kind of cured meat during those memorable al-fresco moments.

I say all this because, for a great many people, the humble ham sandwich is the savoury highlight of such repasts. Some might prefer something a little more elaborate like a ham salad, ham ploughman’s, or maybe some form of cured pork has found its way into other offerings such as a pie or a terrine…

When it comes to carnivorous substances, cured pork of one kind or another can represent the most addictive and welcome end of the meat market. Indeed, it’s often said that the smell of frying bacon is the one thing in the world most likely to tempt a wavering vegetarian.

But of course, there is bacon and there is bacon. There is ham, and there is ham. Not all cured meat has the same provenance. Not by any means. Comparing the kind of cheap wet slippery stuff sold in plastic trays in supermarkets with a “proper” slice of ham would be the foodie equivalent of putting your local cut-price convenience store in the same category as Fortnum and Masons.

Talking of which… What kind of ham do they sell in that most famous of food emporiums? Indeed, what kind of ham do they purvey at the likes of Harrods Food Hall or at Selfridges?

I can tell you the answer, because I have recently been on a visit to the folk who make what is arguably Britain’s finest ham. DukesHill is more than a brand, it is an institution. For more than a quarter of a century the company supplied none other than the late Queen Elizabeth II - two decades ago the team were awarded the ultimate accolade: a Royal Warrant to supply hams to the Palace.

“From our humble beginnings in a converted cowshed in Shropshire in 1985, the work of producing our popular Wiltshire hams has always been a labour of love” says Mark Gallagher who took over DukesHill in 2020, “Word spread and after becoming famous locally, by 1998 we were supplying top London food halls.”

“Throughout the brand’s history, one thing that has never changed is our uncompromising attitude toward provenance, quality, and exceptional taste and flavour. We work in close partnership with British farmers and artisan producers to provide a wonderful array of top-quality fine foods. We only use the finest quality outdoor-bred British pork and the most traditional curing methods, even if it can take six months or more to make some of our hams. We champion expert craftsmanship and the highest quality products and take pride in bringing only the very best food to our customers, with no compromise on time or quality.”

Of course, it is all very well for a company owner to say such things, but if the proof is in the pudding, as they say, it is also in the actual making. Which is why I went to Telford in Shropshire to take a look at how these Rolls Royces of the delicatessen world are created. And let me say at once, they really are made with copious amounts of expertise and care.

There are two sides to the operation - the raw and curing side of the business, and the cooked. All the curing - both wet and dry - is carried out on the former side, which is strictly separated from the area where the cooked items are stored, matured and packed ready for delivery. Indeed, there are even ingenious double-door steam ovens where things like hams go in, cured but uncooked, only to be introduced many hours later to the unbelievably strict clinical conditions which rule the health and safety roost on the other side.

Curing is the ancient process of meat salting, a method of preservation used for centuries to keep families fed through the winter months. These days ham and bacon can either be ‘dry cured’ in salt or ‘wet cured’ through immersion in a liquid brine. Dry curing is the oldest curing method. Traditionally farmhouses would adopt their own distinct recipe, and hang the ham or bacon in the inglenook above the fireplace.

However, traditional dry-curing is a time-consuming process and sadly most ham labelled “dry-cured” in the UK is actually processed in a vacuum bag for a few days. However, at DukesHill each leg of pork is hand rubbed with sea salt for a period of three weeks, during which time the legs are turned every day. They are then hung up and left to mature for at least four months, during which time they develop the outstanding flavour and texture.

Owner Mark Gallagher told me: “Until 1841 salting was just that – the application of dry salt to the meat – which had the effect of drying it, preserving it and making it extremely tasty. In that year however, Elizabeth Harris, the matriarch of a ham curing dynasty based in Calne in Wiltshire, perfected a way of curing pork by immersing it in brine.”

“The results of her labours were hams that were quicker to make, but more importantly gave a product that was distinctly milder in flavour than the distinctly saltier dry-cured hams of yore.”

“Our most popular ham, the Wiltshire, is cured by lengthy immersion in brine, which gives it a moist (but never wet!) texture. DukesHill Wiltshire hams spend almost a week maturing in our own-recipe brine. Unlike other curing processes, we add a touch of unrefined brown sugar to our recipe to add a subtle sweetness and balance alongside the salt levels, giving a mild, subtly sweet, and delicious flavour. The hams are then air-dried for a further week to mature and remove excess moisture. Then we steam cook them for 12 hours, allowing the fat to render and soften to provide a buttery texture.”

“Once cooked the hams are inspected, hand-skinned and trimmed by our expert quality manager who has over 17 years of experience in curing and preparing the finest hams.”

That inspector is production manager Nicky Biddulph who, with the man in charge of the curing side of operations, Thomas Emery, gave me a guided tour. Both these friendly individuals are incredibly skilled and they are passionate about their work. Which I guess you have to be if you are supplying royal personages and the likes of Fortnum and Mason.

Niki Biddulph and her team speaking

“We have our tried and tested systems, of course” said Tom. “But it’s also all about experience and expertise. Added to that, everything we do here is done just right - from the buying of the meat right through the entire process. For example, that’s why we only source outdoor-bred pork from RSPCA Assured farms. The living conditions for the animals have to be nothing but the best.”

“And we are constantly quality-testing” added Nicky. “We test everything. And you never stop learning. That’s the reason why I've been here so long. I love my job, I love the passion that goes behind making these products. We hand produce everything - we don’t ‘process’ it. It’s all done by hand. We may have a small team, but we all have the same drive and passion.”

“We know we are dealing with a premium product - and we want to make sure our customers have the very best premium product. It was a matter of huge pride to me personally - and to all of us - that her late Majesty the Queen loved our hams.”

“All the cures and recipes are DukesHill owned- and, yes, we keep them secret. It was the cure for the York ham that Her Majesty liked so much that she gave us a Royal Warrant. Then Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Masons started carrying our hams. It doesn’t get any better than that.“

DukesHill’s York Ham, which has been enjoyed by the Palace for 25 years, is produced using traditional dry-curing methods that have remained largely unchanged for centuries. “We dress each leg with a pinch of saltpetre and then cover it with a generous layer of salt - this process is repeated over several weeks before the hams are hung in special drying rooms and left to mature for several months.”

“This time-consuming process results in a beautiful ham with an unparalleled depth of flavour, and is the original source of our coveted Royal Warrant. As a traditionally dry-cured ham, the York is a little firmer in texture and saltier than the Wiltshire and should therefore be served sliced as thinly as possible."

Nicky told me her favourite product was the York ham with the company’s own pickled orange glaze. Indeed, DukesHill makes and sells a plethora of savoury goodies nowadays and even offers high class hampers for those who really want to treat themselves during special occasions.

Thomas Emery inspecting a DukesHill Ham

“Over the years our artisan range has expanded. From top-quality cured and fresh meats, traditionally smoked fish, artisan cheeses, handmade puddings, and pies to luxury hampers and much more, we offer the finest selection of top-quality artisan food, delivered direct to the customer’s door” says Mark Gallagher.

“What’s kept the quality just as it was all those years ago is our admiration for, and loyalty to maintaining a traditional approach to crafting fine foods and nurturing relationships with British farmers and small artisan producers. We believe it's this commitment that will keep our heritage rich and our food truly something to celebrate.”

This article was originally published in the Western Morning News on Saturday 19th August 2023