What happens if you eat 112-year-old ham?
A ham in the US said to be the oldest in the world has celebrated its 112th birthday. Can it really be edible after all this time, asks Tom de Castella.
It was first cured by the Gwaltney meat company in 1902, forgotten about at the back of a storage room, and eventually donated to the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia. Today it looks like a piece of old leather. A special case protects it from bugs and mould, and it is billed the world’s oldest edible cured ham. “It would be dry, dry tasting, but it’s not molded,” curator Tracey Neikirk told the Wall Street Journal.
Dry curing – salting the meat and draining the blood – allows ham to last and develop a richer flavour. But most hams are only aged for a year or two. Not 112. “After such a long time and without knowing how the ham was processed it’s difficult to know whether it would be safe,” a Food Standards Agency spokesman says. To most people “edible” means more than the ability to eat something without it killing you. “Jamon iberico of four to five years is amazing,” says Jose Pizarro, owner of Pizarro, a Spanish restaurant in London.” The oldest edible ham he’s heard of is eight years old. After that the fat starts to oxidise and the flavour disappears from the meat. A rancid taste develops as the yellow fat diffuses, and as the decades pass it will become as hard as a stone and incredibly ugly, he says.
And then there’s the question of whether the Virginia museum’s really is the oldest. In 1993, Michael Feller, a butcher in Oxford, bought a ham at auction that was 101 years old. It looked “rather yukky” but was edible, although he wasn’t going to cut into it. Today it hangs in the shop window, unnibbled at the ripe old age of 122. Food writer Jay Rayner is unmoved by the battle for the title of oldest ham. “I’d be suspicious of anyone getting excited about the former back end of a pig that’s been hanging around for 112 years.” Wine and spirits offer a better bet. He remembers drinking a “rather lovely” 1865 armagnac. It had aged well – “deep and toasty” – but the real attraction was not its flavour, he concedes. It was “that link with antiquity”. Which perhaps explains the birthday party for a shrivelled up piece of pork.
A reblog from Fromage Homage
I’m determined not to put the heating on until October but this autumn weather is certainly trying my resolve (hailstones anyone?!) So, it’s ridiculous Nordic cardigans, hot water bottles and comfort food all the way here. Rocket, lettuce and radishes have all fallen by the wayside in favour of starchy root vegetables and soups have kicked out salads. I first came across Cheese and Beer Soup in Kirstin Jackson’s exploration of American cheese…
Read more on: Fromage Homage on the link above.
Yup, why have just one?
Read about the beer on: Wasatch Brew from Utah.
Patriotic to the last drop
The Arab world has given birth to many thinkers and many inventions – among them the three-course meal, alcohol and coffee. The best coffee bean is still known as Arabica, but it’s come a long way from the Muslim mystics who treasured it centuries ago, to the chains that line our high streets.
Think coffee, and you probably think of an Italian espresso, a French cafe au lait, or an American double grande latte with cinnamon.
Perhaps you learned at school that the USA became a nation of coffee drinkers because of the excise duty King George placed on tea? Today ubiquitous chains like Starbucks, Cafe Nero and Costa grace every international airport, and follow the now much humbler Nescafe as symbols of globalisation.
Coffee is produced in hot climates like Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia, and you could be forgiven if you thought it is a product from the New World like tobacco and chocolate. After all, all three became popular in Europe at more or less the same time, in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
In fact, coffee comes from the highland areas of the countries at the southern end of the Red Sea – Yemen and Ethiopia.
Although a beverage made from the wild coffee plant seems to have been first drunk by a legendary shepherd on the Ethiopian plateau, the earliest cultivation of coffee was in Yemen and Yemenis gave it the Arabic name qahwa, from which our words coffee and cafe both derive.
Qahwa originally meant wine, and Sufi mystics in Yemen used coffee as an aid to concentration and even spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God.
By 1414, it was known in Mecca and in the early 1500s was spreading to Egypt from the Yemeni port of Mocha. It was still associated with Sufis, and a cluster of coffee houses grew up in Cairo around the religious university of the Azhar. They also opened in Syria, especially in the cosmopolitan city of Aleppo, and then in Istanbul, the capital of the vast Ottoman Turkish Empire, in 1554.
In Mecca, Cairo and Istanbul attempts were made to ban it by religious authorities. Learned shaykhs discussed whether the effects of coffee were similar to those of alcohol, and some remarked that passing round the coffee pot had something in common with the circulation of a pitcher of wine, a drink forbidden in Islam.
Coffee houses were a new institution in which men met together to talk, listen to poets and play games like chess and backgammon. They became a focus for intellectual life and could be seen as an implicit rival to the mosque as a meeting place.
Some scholars opined that the coffee house was “even worse than the wine room”, and the authorities noted how these places could easily become dens of sedition. However, all attempts at banning coffee failed, even though the death penalty was used during the reign of Murad IV (1623-40). The religious scholars eventually came to a sensible consensus that coffee was, in principle, permissible.
Coffee spread to Europe by two routes – from the Ottoman Empire, and by sea from the original coffee port of Mocha.
Both the English and Dutch East India Companies were major purchasers at Mocha in the early 17th Century, and their cargoes were brought home via the Cape of Good Hope or exported to India and beyond. They seem, however, to have only taken a fraction of Yemeni coffee production – as the rest went north to the rest of the Middle East.
Coffee also arrived in Europe through trade across the Mediterranean and was carried by the Turkish armies as they marched up the Danube. As in the Middle East, the coffee house became a place for men to talk, read, share their opinions on the issues of the day and play games.
Another similarity was that they could harbour gatherings for subversive elements. Charles II denounced them in 1675 as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”.
A century later Procope, the famous Parisian coffee house, had such habitues as Marat, Danton and Robespierre who conspired together there during the Revolution.
At first, coffee had been viewed with suspicion in Europe as a Muslim drink, but around 1600 Pope Clement VIII is reported to have so enjoyed a cup that he said it would be wrong to permit Muslims to monopolise it, and that it should therefore be baptised.
Austrian coffee drinking is said to have received a big boost when the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 was broken, and the European victors captured huge coffee supplies from the vanquished.
Perhaps that is why, to this day, coffee is served in Vienna with a glass of water – just like the tiny cups of powerful Turkish coffee with its heavy sediment in Istanbul, Damascus or Cairo. Is this just a coincidence, or a long forgotten cultural borrowing?
The beverage we call “Turkish coffee” is actually a partial misnomer, as Turkey is just one of the countries where it is drunk. In Greece they call it “Greek coffee”, although Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians and others do not seem to care overmuch about the name.
Image courtesy of http://www.hahastop.com/pictures/United_Steaks_Of_America.htm.