The origin of Suffolk cured hams is the subject of some debate, with some question as to what a Suffolk ham is. Some advocate just the black hams cured with strong beer, but excluding the cider cure and the more recently developed stout cure seems arbitrary. Some experts state that it was the wonderful traditional producer Emmett’s, based in Peasenhall, who introduced the product in 1840, but as Suffolk hams were famed in England before that date their claim is perhaps to the specific cure rather than the generic product.
It is the quality of the pork used and the time and care taken in processing which mark out the product for greatness. The best true Suffolk hams are produced from free-range pigs reared in the county – the aforementioned Emmett’s use those from farms within 25 miles of their Peasenhall premises. And not any old pig will do either – for the end product to be just right the fresh pork leg used has to have a specific fat content.
The traditional method of preparing the hams is that first the fresh pork is brined, the brine containing a little saltpetre as is traditional to help retain some of the colour of the meat after processing. The brined leg is then pickled for at least three weeks, often longer - Emmett’s keep the pork in the pickle for six weeks. The pickling mix contains the black treacle and sugar that gives the end product a certain sweetness, salt to continue the preserving process, and either stout, old ale, cider, or for very special occasions port wine – though foodie fundamentalists may baulk at that - plus for added complexity of flavour spices are used.
The final active stage is the smoking, done for four to five days, traditionally using oak sawdust. And then comes a stage that is anathema to the giant commercial producers of ham, but necessary for the flavour of the real artisan version to develop: waiting for at least a month before the product is available for sale. Emmett’s reckon on the entire process from brining to in their case taking 10 weeks.
A real Suffolk ham does not come cheap, which is reassuring. The Queen is said to have one for the Royal table every Christmas. The flavour has sweetness and a proper ham taste, less salty than the skin of the black versions suggests, varying with the nature of the pickling mix. When stout and ale are used the colour of the skin is a satisfyingly dark hue, close to black. If cider is the alcohol used, the skin is far lighter, but with both there is a real pinkness to the meat. The texture of the ham once cooked has grain and dryness to it.
Hams were of course originally developed to preserve meat over the winter, but that necessity has produced a huge range of styles, methods and end products, some of which bring instant expectations of quality: Bayonne, Parma, and Serrano spring to mind. Real Suffolk ham is worthy to hold its head up in that company any day.