It’s just not Christmas for Stuart if there’s no leg of ham. It’s a tradition in his family to get a ham from a specific butcher in Melbourne. Hams are ordered well in advance, picked up a few days before Christmas and followed by weeks of ham-off-the-bone sandwiches. The ham is lovingly cared for and pulled out every day. Succulent morsels are sliced off to be pressed between fresh bread. It is well suited for the Australian summer, unlike trying to force a Northern Hemisphere roasted meal for lunch on Christmas day.
I on the other hand, was never very fond of ham. When I was about five I watched in horror as my 2-year-old brother nearly choke to death on some ham. Images of my panicked father holding my blue faced brother upside down by his feet, while my equally panicked mother was reaching into his mouth and down his throat with her long fingers to retrieve the offending piece of ham are burned into my memory. The story ends happily enough, but not surprisingly I’ve had an aversion to ham since then.
When we determined that nitrates and nitrites were one of the true triggers for Stuart’s migraines that meant that ham was off the menu. You see modern curing techniques use nitrates and nitrites to enhance the colour of the meat and prevent fatal food poisoning from botulism. Botulism is caused by bacteria Clostridium botulinum growing on improperly sterilized food. It turns out that good bacteria convert to nitrites, nitric oxide (NO) that in turn kills the deadly C. botulinum. Yes that same NO that can trigger migraines. The same way the bacteria in your gut process nitrites. So migraineurs should limit artificial sources of nitrites.
Curing is an ancient form of food preservation. The application of salt, sugar and seasonings preserve meat by drawing out moisture without cooking. About 500 years ago it was discovered by accident that some salts were better at preserving meat than others. It turns out that an impurity in the salt, potassium nitrate a.k.a. saltpeter, was responsible for the enhanced colour and better preservation.
For thousands of year prior to this meat was successfully cured without the addition of nitrates and nitrites. Lucky for us there are artisan butchers reviving these techniques. It is now quite easy to purchase nitrate and nitrite free cured meats and sausages.
So, back to Stuart and his family tradition of a Christmas ham. But it wasn’t just ham that was missing. It also meant no bacon, sausages (aka snags) or Australian smoked salmon. Just try going to an Aussie BBQ and having to give the snags a miss. You’re treated as an outcast. But it was the missing Christmas ham that broke my heart.
After years of searching for a tasty and reasonably priced nitrite free Christmas ham, I finally met Dave MacDonald. Dave hails from Scotland and like many, followed the love of his life here to Australia. He brought with him the traditional Scottish techniques of curing without nitrates and nitrites and practices his craft here in Sydney. You can purchase his goods online for pick-up at most of the weekend markets around Sydney. He also ships to other areas in Australia.
One small thing, he sells gammon – an uncooked ham. Here in Australia, as in America, we are sold the cooked cured pork. Gammon is the uncooked cured pork and requires the final preparation at home. Folks from Europe are very familiar with this process.
As I blankly stared at Dave when he said it wasn’t a ham but gammon, he asked me if I knew how to cook it. My response of “no” may have been just a bit to swift. He gently explained that I needed to boil it first and then finish it off in the oven with a glaze. He warned me that the end product would not be pink like the ham I was used to. I could live with that, it was nitrite free. Plus it smelled amazing, you could smell the slightly smoked meat through the sealed plastic it was encased in. It sounded complicated, but I was entranced by its beauty and thinking I could do this for my love. I had the Internet.
What I discovered was that the the boiling step served two functions; it drew out the curing agents while imparting the flavours of the aromatics in the liquid. The biggest trend in boiling gammon was to do it in Coca Cola, as it imparted a sweetness to the meat. However, Coca Cola is ladened with preservatives so why would I go through all the trouble of getting a preservative free ham to only ruin it by cooking it in preservatives?
So I came up with a more traditional boiling liquid, then finished it off in the oven with an apricot-mustard glaze.
That Christmas Stuart had ham sandwiches savouring every moment for a week straight and not a single migraine. We now have one of Dave’s hams at Easter, Christmas in July and for his birthday with ham sandwiches and other dishes the following week. It’s bliss for him.
As for me, restoring a Christmas tradition for him made it the best Christmas ever.
Apricot Glazed Ham
Apricot glazed ham makes for a festive meal with plenty of leftovers for sandwiches.
Required skills: boiling water, setting a timer and doing things when it dings.
I like to combine the sweetness of the pork with apples, cloves and star anise. As the gammon does not have any nitrates or nitrites to keep the bright pink colour that we usually associate with modern ham, I have reduced the simmering stage and lengthened the roasting stage to keep the meat from going a grey colour. The total cooking time is the same, it’s just redistributed. I find that this results in a ham that is a very light pink.
A 1.5 kg ham serves two people over a week. A 2 kg ham kept three of us fed for about five days. If you are going into ham overload then you can freeze up small portions for later use in omelets, quiches and pizzas. Enjoy my friends.
- 1 nitrite free gammon
- 2-3 litres of preservative free apple juice
- 4-5 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp of cloves
- 1 tbsp of peppercorns
- Large stock pot
- 3-4 apples
- 3-4 carrots
- Large roasting pan
- 1 jar preservative free good quality apricot jam; I use Beerenburg.
- ⅓ of the empty jar preservative free cranberry juice
- 1 tbsp preservative free whole grain mustard
- ⅓ cup brown sugar
- Small saucepan
- Basting brush
For the simmer
For the roasting
- Place the gammon and aromatics in the large stockpot.
- Cover with apple juice. 3.Bring to a boil and turn down the heat so that pot is simmering. The surface of the liquid should be shimmering with tiny, champagne like bubbles forming. 4.Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and simmer for 20 minutes per kg (10 minutes per pound) of meat plus 10 minutes for the pot. For example a 1.5 kg gammon would simmer for 40 minutes, 2 kg for 50 minutes.
- While the gammon is simmering, make the glaze in a small saucepan.
- Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan by mixing with a spoon.
- Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- Simmer for 5 minutes without stirring and take off the heat.
- Make the trivet for the ham. Cut apples and carrots in half and place a single layer in the baking tray.
- Preheat oven to 170C (325F)
- When the gammon has finished simmering, lift it onto a cutting board.
- Remove the skin from the ham with a sharp knife. It should separate easily from the fat layer, which you want to retain for the roasting.
- Score the fat into small diamonds. You may wish to put a clove into each to the diamonds. Place gammon on the trivet of apples and carrots.
- Put in oven preheated oven and set timer for 10 minutes.
- From this point onwards every 10 minutes you are going to glaze the ham.
- Roast the ham for 40 minutes per kg (20 minutes per pound) glazing every 10 minutes. This is double the boiling time.
- Allow to rest for 10 minutes before carving.
- Leftovers may be refrigerated in an airtight container for 1 week.
So my friends, is there a dish that you have learned to make for your beloved?