Over my years behind the butcher’s counter there have been many a time I’ve been asked what is the difference between gammon and ham. I believe I’m correct in saying; not a lot. Technically, a ham is cured as a piece while a gammon is cut from a flitch (cured side of pork). Give that the leg is at least four times as thick as, say, belly pork so will take considerably longer and need more salt, curing separately seems like the way to go – so that’s what we do. In BFS speak; ham is cooked and gammon isn’t.
Traditionally, salting pork was the only way of keeping pork over a prolonged period. I don’t know how common it was but if you believe the likes of William Cobbett, John Seymour and, even, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, every smallholder, serf, peasant etc, used to fatten a pig on scraps from kitchen, garden and farm (begged, borrowed or stolen), kill, butcher and preserve it, and live off it for the rest of the year. Now we have a continual supply of pigs and this wonderful thing called refrigeration so ’why bother?’ is a perfectly valid question (if food is simply fuel) but variation is the spice of life and boiled pork sandwiches every day would get pretty boring.
On the continent, curing pork into ham, jamon, jambon, speck, prosciutto or whatever you want to call it is a noble art form. They’ve been doing it for centuries and the best examples have absurd status and price tags to match. Here we have a few regional variations (Wiltshire, York, Bradenham etc) and, until recently, have gone down a different route of quick curing and cooking. It’s hard to see bacon ever falling out of fashion and ham hocks have been a bit of a foodies staple for several years but, as I seem to say every other fortnight; we’ve all fallen out of love with poached / boiled meats of which ham and gammon is one. We all eat the occasional ham sandwich but, as a joint, it’s become Christmas specific. It’s a shame because, as with the oft quoted roast beef-> sandwich -> cottage pie route, a just cooked joint of ham offers a myriad of possibilities for breakfast, picnics and thrifty suppers.
But first you have to cook it;
There’s really only one way of cooking a gammon joint and that’s in liquid. I use the word boil but, in practice, that’s the last thing you want to do. If the liquid does actually boil, even for a brief period, the meat can turn stringy and dry so a bare simmer of around 85°C is what to aim for. That way, there’s hardly any chance of overcooking. A gammon that goes straight into the oven must, by definition, be so lightly cured that it’s not worthy of its name. We cure our gammon in a similar way to the Wiltshire method used for generations, by the Harris Bacon Factory in Totnes (where Morrison’s is). They’re given a fairly heavy initial salting, steeped in brine and then hung to ‘equalize’ for a couple of weeks. It produces a reasonably mild gammon with a decent shelf life.
To cook a 2-2½kg gammon; place in a large saucepan and slowly bring to the simmer. Simmer gently for fifteen minutes, remove the gammon and discard the water. Put the gammon back in the saucepan and start again – this time with whatever aromatics and spices take your fancy. An onion stuck with a couple of cloves, leek tops, a few peppercorns etc will all add flavour. Or you can vary the liquid – Nigella favours Coca-Cola or cherry Coke and there are lots of recipes for cider out there. If you’re feeling uninspired, a little cider vinegar will always add something. Once you’ve decided who to invite to the party, bring everything back to a gentle simmer (85°C) and cook for about two hours. If you’ve taken my advise and bought a meat thermometer you’re looking for a core tempoerature of around 67°C. Remove from the pan and peel off the skin. If the skin doesn’t come off easily, it’s not cooked so put it back in the pan for another twenty minutes or so. Meanwhile switch on the oven to 220°C.
Once skinned, score the fat with the end of a sharp knife in a diamond pattern and glaze. We’ve always used a mixture of brown sugar, mustard powder and apple concentrate but the choice is yours. Spread the glaze over the ham (it’s cooked now) and bake until it begins catch and the fats starts crisping up (about 15 minutes). Remove from the oven and allow to rest before carving.
Once cooked, you have hot and cold (including sandwiches and salads) options. There’s also various ham and egg options or you could go for something a little further from its original form.
Lentil and ham hock casserole
Lentils seem to have a natural affinity with all things pork; cotechino, Montebeliard or frankfurter sausages, salt belly pork, ham hock etc. Recipes abound and with minor adjustments to method and ingredients you can recreate as soup, stew or warm salad. Ham hock brings a slightly gelatinous, comforting mouth feel but substituting a handful of chopped or shredded ham shortens the cooking process be about three hours. Obviously you won’t have the ham cooking broth for braising the lentils so substitute a mixture of chicken stock and
2 ham hocks, about 1-1.3 each
1 onion, quartered
2 carrots, quartered lengthways
2 celery sticks, cut into thirds crossways
Bouquet garni of parsley stalks, a few sprigs fresh thyme and bay leaves.
For the lentils
250g dark green lentils
a large knob of butter
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 celery stick, finely diced
1 heaped tbsp coarsely chopped fresh parsley leaves.
First, as with a gammon joint, put the hocks in a large pan, cover with cold water and bring to the simmer. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1 minute, then carefully drain off the hot water and refresh under cold running water for a minute or so.
Add the onion, carrot, celery and bouquet garni, cover with water and cook slowly for about three hours (a slow cooker is ideal for this).To check if hams are cooked, pull out the small bone close to the large one – it should be loose and come out easily. Rest hams in the stock for 15-20 minutes (30 minutes, ideally), so the meat softens and relaxes. Lift out the hams and set aside until cool enough to handle. Strain off 900ml/1½ pint ham stock into a jug and set aside. Reserve leftover stock.
For the lentils; first blanch them by plunging them into a pan of boiling water, then drain into a sieve and refresh under the cold tap. This will clean the lentils, hopefully separating any small stones and speed up braising process.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the diced onion, carrot and celery, cover the pan and cook without colouring for 5-6 minutes. Tip in the blanched lentils, then pour in 900ml/1½ pint strained stock. Bring the lentils to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes – check occasionally and top up with more stock if needed – until tender. Ideally, you want the end result to still have a little bite.
About 10 minutes before the lentils are ready, strip off the skin and fat from the hams with a knife, then remove the meat from the bones and cut it into rough pieces or shred it with your fingers. To serve, add the shredded ham and the coarsely chopped parsley to the lentils, and season with a twist of pepper. If you think you need a little more liquid (or you’re making a soup), simply stir in an extra ladle or two of strained stock.