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Pear Enlightenment and The Brogdale Farm

December 14th, 2010 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

My new favorite place on earth is the Brogdale Farm in the town of Faversham, county Kent, England. It’s Disney World for fruit lovers –if Disney World were almost free and completely deserted. They have the largest collection of culinary apples in the world, and Nastassia and I went to taste them in October. (The Brogdale was the second stop on my worldwide apple pilgrimage.  Geneva, New York– where the US Government keeps the largest collection of culinary and non-culinary apples in the world – was the first, and God willing the last stop will be the Tian Shan fruit forest in Kazakhstan.)

October at the Brogdale.

To reach the apple orchards you must first pass by the Brogdale’s pear collection.  Though I’d never taken pears seriously,  I decided to taste some (they were, after all, within arm’s reach).  This short diversion turned into an hours-long  pear extravaganza. We tasted well over 200 varieties of Pyrus communis –the European pear. My fruit-consciousness was forever expanded.  The pear is worthy of deep, deep study.

The Farm

The Brogdale Farm is home to the National Fruit Collection.  The land is privately owned but the fruit collection is publicly owned and is maintained by the University of Reading.  While the United States has its fruit collections spread across the country,  Britain keeps everything in one place at the Brogdale: 2222 varieties of apple, 530 pears, 303 plums, 329 cherries, 213 currants, 155 gooseberries, 54 grapes, 47 cobnuts (hazelnuts and filberts), plus a smattering of quinces, apricots, medlars, and Asian pears (search their database here). In the US, the ideal growing conditions for different fruits occur in different places –apples in NY (sorry Pacific Northwest), pears in Oregon, etc.  In Britain, county Kent is the place to be if you are a fruit. It is the mildest and warmest place on the island.  And the mildest, warmest place in Kent is the Brogdale in Faversham –a temperate fruit Eden.

Our Trip:

We arrived at the farm early one Monday afternoon to find …no one.  We searched around for 15 minutes till we found someone willing to accept our five pound entrance fee (we think he worked there). Perusing the size of the orchards and gardens on the map we scrounged up, I began to grasp what was in store for us. At that moment a tour bus pulled into the parking lot, spilling its passengers next to us. I was afraid we’d be saddled with this group in the orchards – they’d eat all the precious fruit!  I needn’t have worried.  As soon as their pictures were snapped in front of the sign in the parking lot they piled back on the bus and left. Did they not know they were one hedgerow away from pomological Nirvana? Excepting pheasants and rabbits we didn’t see another soul the entire afternoon. We roamed the orchards as we pleased.

Suggestive pear at the Brogdale.

The Tasting Strategy:

Nastassia and I tasted the first 20 or so pear varieties together. Once we had a baseline of tastes, textures, and aromas we split rows to tackle the rest of the orchard. Nastassia tasted pears on the right; I tasted pears on the left.  If either of us tasted a variety that was somehow noteworthy, we had the other one taste it and we took notes.  We tasted every pear variety that still had fruit on the tree except the perry- pears (pears specifically for pear cider, which are in a separate field).

The Pears

Pears are as varied in taste, texture, shape, size and aroma as apples are –maybe more so.  In fact, the morphological variety of pears led to Nastassia’s greatest quote of all time, “If someone calls you pear shaped, you shouldn’t get offended till you ask them what kind of pear they’re talking about.”

"who you callin' pear shaped?" Pears of all shapes, sizes and colors.

The Wardens –Culinary Pears:

Some pears were hard like rocks and had very little flavor.  Some were just under ripe or bad. Others were part of a whole category of pears unknown to most of us in the US –culinary pears, or wardens. Wardens are an ancient category of pear that predates dessert pears. Unlike culinary apples, which are hard and tart but usually taste OK, most wardens are useless till cooked –they never soften up on their own and need to be cooked for hours. Because they stay hard, they also keep a long long time –a very useful trait pre-refrigeration. Unfortunately for me I didn’t know any of this, so I poo-pooed such famous culinary pears as Catillac (which turns pink when cooked) and Black Worcester.

I grew up eating chardwarden, a medieval pear compote my mom is partial to; but we’ve always used under-ripe dessert pears instead of true wardens (not out of laziness –out of ignorance).  If I had done my pear research before the tasting I would have purchased a hotplate, stolen some wardens, and made chardwarden in the hotel room.

Acidity, Crunchiness and Appleness:

Most pears are acid deficient to an acid-eater like myself, but Double de Guerre, a 19th century Belgian variety that is technically a cooking pear, had the taste and malic acid hit of a good granny smith apple –and was crunchy to boot. Scipiona, an old English variety, was another green-apple wearing a pear costume.  Other pears had hints of apple flavor without the acid, like De Duvergnies and Crassane, two tender aromatic pears that reminded us of sweet apples –in a pear sort of way. There were even acidic pears that didn’t remind us of apples at all: Beurre Duval, a relatively recent Belgian pear, had the taste of a semi-tart pear candy.

De Duvergnies: looks like a pear, has the texture of a pear, with a taste very reminiscent of apple. Raised by the famous grower Van Mons in Belgium in 1821.

Fantabulous Butter

Most pears in US supermarkets are somewhat grainy in texture –even when soft and ripe.  I’d thought granularity was a hallmark of pear texture –and indeed it was;  pre-19th century pears are almost always granular.  I never really appreciated this aspect of pears –it’s part of the reason I’d been prejudiced against them all these years.  Pears that aren’t supposed to be granular are called Beurre, butter, because their flesh is soft and melting.  In this country, the two most famous beurre pears are Beurre D’Anjou and Beurre Bosc –both of which, as grown here, are usually granular.  Even Comice (aka Doyenne Du Comice) pears, the best commercial variety available (from a taste standpoint), usually has some textural flaws.  I’m here to tell you there are some pears that really put the butter in beurre.

The Beurre Superfin is one of the best fruits I have ever had.  It makes the best Comice I’ve had look foolish. It was raised in France (where they know from pears) in the mid 19th century.  The flesh was terrifically aromatic, sweet and complex and exploded with juice. The texture was… well…. superfine.  The problem with this fruit is it doesn’t keep well, is a finicky grower and is very susceptible to disease here in the US (more on that later). Bummer.

The Beurre Superfin.

Other super-buttery pears were the Beurre Brown (absurdly buttery, and the first pear to be called beurre in 1605 –a full hundred years before the rapid proliferation of the beurre varieties). and the Beurre Dumont, whose textures alone would have merited great praise –on any other day at any other place. At the Brogdale in mid October, they were almost lost in the embarrassment of pyrus-a-plenty

Pears with Strange Flavors:

Bonne d’Ezee tasted like an Fla-Vor-Ice freezer pop (our notes don’t indicate which flavor) and Cayuga tasted likes Nik-L-Nips candy and caramel.

Cayuga, a New York variety developed in the 1920's by U P Hedrick, one of the greatest American fruit writers, tasted of Nik-L-Nips. The US pear collection group in Corvallis Oregon didn't think it was so special --but the Brogdale people liked it. PS: the plants surrounding the pear trees are stinging nettles. They were everywhere in the orchard. I like to make nettle soup but they gave me a couple nasty stings that day.

Sini Armud was hard and tasted of oranges.  Beurre D’Avalon was soft and tasted of rosewater.

Beurre D'Avalon. Rosewater.

On the really weird side: Hermansverk 1/1 tasted of canned black California olives, the unnamed JI 4244 tasted animal –like musk, and Perdue 41 was a dead ringer for giant water-bug essence (a flavor I am trained to root out).

Three weird pears (left to right): JI 4244, tastes like animal musk; Perdue 41, tastes like giant water-bug essence; Hermansverk 1/1, tastes like canned black olives.

Two Rare Pears. Help us find Them:

Of course, the two pears we were most interested in were so rare I could find no references to them in any pomological texts or internet sites except the Brogdale’s.  Please help us identify and find them.

Nurun Burun, whose name, I believe, means graceful smell in Turkish, had the texture of a soft ripe pear but the indescribably fantastic aroma of a fine quince and not a hint of astringency –a once in a lifetime pear. Nimrod, besides having the funniest name in the collection, tasted just like Kraft brand caramel squares, and was Nastassia’s favorite pear of the day.

Rare Pears: Nimrod (left); Narun Barun (right).

General Notes on the Tasting:

I think we got a good feel for the pear’s range of tastes and textures, but we were hampered by two things:

We were only tasting pears on one day, grown in a particular location. Some pears were not yet ripe, some were overripe, and some trees had already dropped their fruit. If I lived in London, I would go at least twice a month during fruit season.  The farm is only an hour from Paddington station by train. Pears are also sensitive to their terroir –a great pear in Kent might taste mediocre in New York and vice versa. Because of this, I hesitate to pass negative judgments on fruit varieties based on one single tasting.  After all, someone loved every named fruit variety enough to save it, and propagate it. Most likely, if a fruit seems useless, either you are using it incorrectly, or it is being grown in the wrong place.

Pears shouldn’t normally be fully ripened on the tree. Unlike most fruits (except certain apples and medlars), for peak flavor pears should be picked under ripe and stored awhile –difficult for an American who isn’t allowed to bring fresh fruit back on an airplane.

Mo Pears, Mo Problems, Pear Literature, Pear History:

There isn’t much being written these days about the pear.  The only relatively recent reference work I was able to find was Pears, by Jim Arbury and Sally Pinhey, which isn’t as comprehensive as I’d like, but if you are visiting the Brogdale get a copy –it has a list of the Brogdale’s collection in the back, which is helpful for note taking.  All the great works on pears were written in the 19th and early 20th century.

The first essay you should read on pears is in Edward Bunyard’s delightful fruit paean The Anatomy of Dessert.  He writes, “After thirty years of tasting Pears I am still unfurnished with a vocabulary to describe their flavour.” If any writer can make you love pears merely with prose, Bunyard can.

After Bunyard you should dive into U.P. Hedrick’s monumental work, The Pears of New York (1921).I’ll review that book more fully in a future post — aside from providing descriptions of hundreds upon hundred of pears and having stunning full color plates, it does a very good job of tracing the history and development of modern pear varieties –and pear problems.

Although the pear has been around for millenia, the explosion of modern varieties really began in the 18th century in Belgium.  Hedrick writes, “Providence ordained Belgium to produce the modern pear…Nearly all pears, before the Belgians began to improve them, were crisp or breaking in flesh… while the soft-fleshed, melting pears, the beurres of the French were as yet hardly known. Now, mostly owing to the work of the Belgians, the buttery pears predominate (pages 16-17).”  Why Belgium? Holland had tulips, Belgium had pears.  A cult of amateur horticulturists sprang up in Belgium and it became a fashionable hobby to develop new pear varieties (as it did later in England).  It is to the work of these amateurs, rather than professionals scientists or growers, that we owe our delicious pears –but, as Hedrick points out, that is also the problem.  Because the great varieties were not developed with production in mind, they don’t necessarily conform to commercial growers’ needs.

Kieffer Pear, from U. P. Hedrick's Pears of New York. The Kieffer was the most common pear in America when Hedrick was writing --he loathed it. "Dire necessity alone compelling their consumption uncooked."

Hedrick, in 1921, addressed the problem of why great pears aren’t more readily available –specifically why apples beat pears commercially — and his words still ring true:

Pears are more varied in size, shape, texture, and flavor of flesh than others of the hardy tree-fruits, and in length of season exceed all others excepting apple. Varieties of pears, possibly, have the charm of individuality more marked than varieties of its orchard associates…  Why, then, is the pear not more popular in America? Conditions of Climate, pests, season of ripening, taste and trade prevent the expansion of pear culture on this side of the Atlantic[p38]…. Pears compete with apple more than with any other fruit, but are at a disadvantage with this near relative in having a much shorter period during which the fruits can be used… Still another reason why the pear is not a popular dessert fruit in America is that, of all fruits, the varieties of this one are the most variable in quality of product… Lastly the pear falls short of the apple as a commercial product because it is not nearly so easy to handle as a commercial crop… Failing in comparison with the apple, as a commercial product,pears are largely left to fruit connoisseurs, and with these a generation ago the pear was the fruit of fruits, many splendid collections of it having been made in regions where pears could be grown.  With the expansion of commercial fruit growing, collections of pears, and with them many choice varieties, have gone out of cultivation –more is the pity [pages 39-40].

The pear pests that Hedrick mentions are more dogged here than in Europe.  The worst of them is Fire Blight, a disease caused by bacteria that attacks many trees of the Rosaceae family, including apples, pears, and hawthorns –but really beats up on pears.  Even today there’s no cure.  People try to spray whole fields with antibiotics during flowering time, but that doesn’t seem like a fantastic idea.  The only real ways to control it are to cut out and dispose of diseased wood quicky and plant resistant varieties (which may or may not taste good).  Fireblight is a doozy of a problem and is entirely American –or was.  Sometime in the mid 20th century, Fire Blight made it to Europe, and even to Kent -in 1957.  You’re welcome.

As You Leave Brogdale Farm:

Make sure you stop at the cider shop just outside the farm.  It has the best collection of ciders  I’ve seen and the owners are good people.  If you get there at closing time, are friendly and chat them up, they might even give you a ride back to the train station.

In the cider shop.

Next Stop on the Pear Tour?

Corvallis Oregon, where the US National Clonal Germplasm Repository (that means orchard) for pears is located is on my must see list for Fall 2011.

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Cooking Issues Radio Live Tuesday, December 7th

December 6th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Cooking Issues Radio comes to you live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, December 7th from 12:00pm-12:45pm EST. Please probe Dave with all of your cooking issues live at 718-497-2128 or have Nastassia relay them by emailing her at:  lopez.nastassia@gmail.com.

Thanks for listening to/downloading the show!

– The Cooking Issues Team

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Turkey Update: Giving them the Bird

December 6th, 2010 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

This Thanksgiving I cooked a Narragansett turkey from Heritage Foods.  I used the Bionic Turkey method, and it was the best damned turkey I’ve ever eaten — meatier and more turkey-tasting than its predecessors.  It was devoured so quickly that I didn’t get a picture of it.  It was moist and perfectly cooked throughout, as a bionic turkey should be –and it almost ruined Thanksgiving.

For more on the bionic turkey method, see here.  For more info on Narragansetts, see here.

I didn't get a picture of the turkey; but, if it's any consolation, I did get a shot of this lovely vintage port that finished off the night.

Flash-frying is the best way to finish a bionic turkey, but I have a history of ruining Thanksgiving with turkey-frying incidents and am thus forbidden from frying at my mom’s house. Instead, I decided to finish the bird in my mom’s convection oven cranked to 500 F.  I was confident there would be no problems.  My mom and step-father weren’t. They fretted about smoke and smoke detectors.

I detest smoke detectors near kitchens, where they operate more like cooking detectors.  My mom’s are more pernicious than most — if triggered, her detectors call the fire department.  If the sirens show up and there isn’t a fire, she gets smacked with a whopping bill (encouraging her to light a real fire to make the whole thing worthwhile). Detectors should work like anti-virus software, able to be shut off for a specific length of time and then reactivated automatically –but they don’t, so I had to put smoke-condoms over them.

To hold the bird I chose my mom’s unglazed ceramic baking dish. I figured I could pre-heat the dish, put the bird on it, and get the skin on the bottom nice and crispy. Flabby skin on the underside of oven-finished birds is something I can’t abide. The pre-heat was uneventful, as were the first 10 minutes of an anticipated 20 minute cook time. At the 11 minute-mark thick smoke started pouring out of the oven and quickly engulfed the kitchen where we were all gathered. Pandemonium ensued. My step father ranted about my inability to just cook a turkey in a civilized manner like everyone else. Doors were flung open and fans were turned on, sucking in fresh but freezing-cold air (the heating bills!). Smoke detectors were anxiously monitored.  I opened the oven to find that mom’s dish had cracked in two, spilling juices and fat onto the floor of the oven.  Crap.

Sad, sorry, broken dish.

After five minutes the house was clear of smoke but 20 degrees colder. Thankfully, people were so happy with the taste of the bird that all was forgiven.  After all, the detector had not gone off and the fire department had not crashed dinner.  As we were eating dessert, my mom mentioned that the dish I’d used was a replacement she’d demanded from the manufacturer after the original cracked in the oven — under much less intense circumstances.

Good looking out, ma.

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Cooking Issues Radio Live, Tuesday

November 29th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Dave and Nastassia broadcasting from their radio box in the backyard of Roberta's pizza at the Heritage Radio headquarters in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Cooking Issues Radio will be live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, November 30th from noon-12:45pm EST. We hope you’ve all recovered from Thanksgiving and have some new cooking issues for us to tackle. Call in live at 718-497-2128 or email your questions to Nastassia at: lopez.nastassia@gmail.com.

We love our listeners!

– The Cooking Issues Team

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Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t Poison Your Family.

November 24th, 2010 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Da Boid:

I’m repeating last year’s technique for my 2010 bird –the bionic turkey method. You can read the four-part saga here: figuring out the parametersbuying the bird; cooking the bird; and finishing the bird. This year I got a Narragansett bird from Heritage Foods USA. The Narragansett breed orginally hails from Rhode Island, but my turkey was born and raised in Virginia. Narragansetts are a cross between indigenous wild turkeys and domesticated turkeys, and they’re reportedly delicious. I’ll let you know. Here is a photo montage of this year’s bird:

Bionic Turkey 2010: 1) Making and aluminum-foil skeleton to match the real skeleton. 2) The completed aluminum skeleton with the hollow "oil sprinkler" leg bones in place. 3) Inserting the aluminum skeleton into the turkey (previously inside-out glove boned). 4) Pumping hot duck-fat through the legs to pre-cook them at a higher temp than the legs will cook. Notice the fat-waterfall going back into the circulating container. 5) The rest of the turkey being cooked in circulated duck fat. 6) The finished bird.


Thanksgiving Tip: Don’t Poison Your Family

You aren’t supposed to stuff a raw turkey and cook it. It takes a long, long time for the center of a stuffed bird to reach a safe temperature.  Making matters worse, stuffing is inherently contaminated because it is typically a hand-mixed product full of bacteria-friendly stuff. Some websites recommend pre-cooking the stuffing before it goes in the bird, but that’s a dicey proposition if you’re baking (or microwaving) the stuffing: you might pre-set the eggs or dry the stuffing out.

Put your stuffing in a Ziploc bag and pasteurize it at 57 C (135 F).

Here’s a workaround, if you have an immersion circulator — Put the stuffing  you intend to put in the bird into a ziploc bag, press it flat, throw in some butter-knives to keep the bag from floating (a trick from Chef Herve Malivert here at the FCI), exclude the air, and circulate the stuffing at 57 C (135 F) for an hour or two — a temperature high enough to kill the bacteria that might ail you. The USDA temperature of 165 F is absurdly high. Absurdly. I don’t understand how they can, with a straight-face, recommend that stuffing be cooked to 165 F for safety.  Much lower temps are safe if the stuffing is cooked long enough.  I choose 57 C (135 F) because it kills bacteria but leaves the stuffing functionally raw — the texture isn’t be affected.

Leave the stuffing in the circulator till just before the bird goes in the oven.  Stuff the hot stuffing in the bird and cook. The preheated stuffing will give your turkey a jump-start in cooking, a nice side benefit.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Powers of Two: Hand-Pulled Cotton-Candy ‘Round the World

November 22nd, 2010 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Call it what you want --dragon's beard, pashmak, or pishmaniye-- this hand-pulled Valrhona cotton candy is mighty good.

Welcome to my first video post, in which I’ll show you how to make  hand-pulled cotton candy (hereafter denoted as HPCC).  HPCC is made by stretching and folding cooked sugar while continuously dusting with powder to keep the strands from sticking together. Each time you fold the candy you double the number of strands. 14 turns, which results in 16,384 strands, is not uncommon. The most well known HPCC is dragon’s beard candy from China, which you can find in New York’s Chinatown if you look hard.

For years I thought dragon’s beard was specifically Chinese.  Recently, however, Behroush Sharifi, the Saffron King, gave us a sample of pashmak, Iranian HPCC  flavored with sesame flour.  Our Turkish intern Naz saw the pashmak and told me about a Turkish version called pishmaniye, flavored with buttered flour.  Turns out HPCC is a world-wide phenomenon.  Using chef Peter Pang’s instructions for dragon’s beard as a foundation, I developed the Cooking Issues recipe.  Here it is ( n.b. I’m not that good at it yet):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auRNHI2nkIU]

I tried to make the video comprehensive,  so you might find that it runs a little long.  If you’re in a hurry, the recipe is at 30 seconds, the pulling starts at 4:45, and the fast-motion pulling starts at 6:46.

For the recipe and technique, watch the video; some teaser pictures below:

Staring through 16,384 strands of candy (2 to the 14th turns).

FCI alumnus Nick Wong angling for dragon's moustache as the new HPCC term.

HPCC flavored with malt vinegar powder, mustard powder, smoke powder, and cornstarch sprinkled with citric acid and salt and wrapped around chopped peanuts. Not savory and not a gimmick --straight-up truly delicious. Eat-all-day delicious.

HPCC mid-pull. Here we are using 75% cornstarch 25% Valrhona cocoa powder. For a darker, richer, flavor we use 50/50.

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Cooking Issues Radio Show: Live, Tuesday

November 15th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Howdy readers,

Cooking Issues Radio will be live on the Heritage Radio Network tomorrow, Tuesday, November 16th from noon-1pm EST. Call in all of your cooking issues live at 718-497-2128 or email questions to Nastassia at: lopez.nastassia@gmail.com.

Thanks for listening,

The Cooking Issues Team

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Country Ham Fantastica: Our Hams’ Place in the World

October 28th, 2010 · Bacon and Hams, Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Nils and I recently visited the great state of Kentucky,  home to some of the finest country ham producers in the world – including Finchville Farms.

Me after consuming loads and loads of ham.

While visiting Finchville it dawned on me that I’ve never posted on country ham.  The shame! Before I was known for tech many people knew me as that guy who loves country ham. I’ve always loved it;  I have fond memories of my grandma serving  it to me with her red-eye gravy.  I became a certifiable country ham nut in 2004, while trying to start The Museum of Food and Drink (I’m still trying to get that off the ground.)  I was researching country ham for an exhibit, with the  goal of  spreading my belief that American Country Ham is a national culinary treasure that can be appreciated in a very modern way by eating it uncooked and sliced thin on a meat slicer –the same way we enjoy prosciutto.

My brochure from the exhibit,  including a list of producers and tasting notes, can be downloaded here, and  at the end of this post I reprint the  exhibit text.  In 2007 I wrote an article on dry cured hams for Food Arts magazine, which you can read here.

Hams! Hams! Hams! These are aged and ready to go (they don't hang this close together while aging).

Some of my current country ham thoughts:

1. American country hams are often difficult to slice on a meat slicer because the cushion –the meaty part of the ham — is usually a bit wet even when the outside of the ham is quite dry. This wetness is the  result of  most country hams’ shape, which prevent uniform drying.  Country ham producers don’t mind the wetness –in fact they like it, because they intend to cook the ham.  But this wetness presents obstacles to those of us who want to eat the ham uncooked.  I’d like to experiment by rubbing the outside of some hams with a lard/flour mixture — I think I could do some long aging (two years or more) without overly drying the outer portions.

2. I believe the characteristic flavor of American ham comes from our high aging temperatures and humidity –usually far higher than European hams.  I think the high temperatures bring on that country ham funk I love so much.  I’d like to see some of the chefs who are curing their own hams make an American-style product — most are working within the European lower temp, lower humidity parameters.

3. Country hams are salty –stop whining.  Don’t overcook them and they won’t seem so salty –better yet, don’t cook them at all.

4. Today some high profile chefs are working to popularize American country hams, and I’m thankful for it.

OK, now the exhibit text:

AMERICAN COUNTRY HAM     |      From The Museum of Food and Drink Exhibit November 2004
If you were raised in America, you probably think of ham the way it’s traditionally found in grocery stores today—pumped full of water and ready to be dressed in its holiday best, cooked with sugar syrup and pineapples. Introduced in the 20th century, these “city hams” don’t have much depth of flavor but are cheap to produce and are by far the most popular hams in this country. But American artisanal ham producers have been producing an entirely different, superior product for the past four centuries: ham that is dry-cured and aged, called “country ham.”
City Ham, Country Ham:

City ham versus country ham: no contest.

There are reasons you don’t find dry-cured American country ham at your grocery store deli.

  1. Producers must invest four months to a year aging a country ham, taking up space and tying up capital. They don’t see a return on their investment until the ham is ready for retail.
  2. The older and better a ham gets, the more it shrinks due to lost water. Some hams in this show have lost more than 30 percent of their original weight; they must lose a minimum of 18 percent by law to qualify as country ham. The cost per pound at retail, therefore, is much higher than a city ham.
  3. The old saying goes: Forever is two people and a Virginia ham. From a taste and cost perspective, we should buy whole country hams and eat them gradually in small, thin slices. But most modern consumers don’t want a whole leg of a pig occupying their fridge for weeks, nor are they comfortable carving it. Producers have tried to address these inconveniences by offering packaged “center cuts,” which are essentially ham steaks. The problem: They are usually too thick to show off a cured ham to its best advantage.

Long ago, meat packers figured out a way to solve all three of these problems at once with the “city ham.” City hams are pumped full of a brine mixture—usually water, salt, sugar, nitrates and other chemicals. The brine is often pumped directly into the pig’s femoral artery so that it circulates throughout the ham (industry lore is that an embalmer came up with this method). The process reduces the cure time to almost nothing, giving the meat a cured flavor and color in a fraction of the time of dry aging. The brine also makes the ham sweet, mild and semi-salty, so it can be carved into thick slabs and eaten with a fork and steak knife. And unlike a cured and aged ham, which loses weight over time, the brine-cured city ham often weighs more than it did before brining when it’s sold, adding up to higher profits for the producer. As Americans have adopted this as their de-facto ham, dry-curing has become a dying art in the American South.

Ham span: Climate and the world’s ham belt:

Curing hams was a matter of necessity in the days before producers could rely on commercial refrigeration. When cold weather arrived, farmers (most of whom kept pigs) had to choose between slaughtering their pigs and feeding them through the lean winter months. Often they decided to slaughter them. American farmers living in areas like Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, where winter temperatures hover between 32 and 42 degrees, were in luck: They could dry-cure their slaughtered pigs during the winter without risk of spoilage or freezing. In states farther south, like Florida, the pork would spoil in warm temperatures; in the north, hams would freeze, preventing the cure from penetrating the meat. During the springtime, mild weather in the good ham-curing states gave the hams time to equalize their salt content and begin drying out. The hot, fairly humid summers in the American South are likewise perfect for the next stage in the process: Higher temperatures activate enzymes that break down proteins and fats in the meat, giving the finished product a distinct aged flavor. This process is referred to as “the sweat.”  Heat = aging = flavor. And humidity keeps the ham from getting too dry. So while Virginia has always been a state for ham lovers, Arizona is not: A Phoenix summer would produce a crop of dry, oversized paperweights.

Cold –but not freezing— winter weather was the first thing our ancestors needed to make a great dry-cured ham. If the climate was too cold, a whole ham would freeze before it could be cured in the classic technique. If too warm, a whole ham would spoil. The tradition of the dry-cured ham, therefore, wraps around the world in a distinct climate zone. This ham belt includes most of lower Europe and the Mediterranean, is interrupted by Islamic interdictions on pork consumption, extremely high mountains, and vegetarian based cultures, and picks up again in China (from my Food Arts article. click on image to make it bigger).

Of course today we can create ideal ham-curing conditions almost anywhere, with a period of artificial refrigeration followed by a period of heat and humidity. Some good ham, for instance, is now made in Canada. But the culture of great ham started—and lives on—in the world’s ham belt, which runs through the southeastern United States, southern and central Europe, and southern China. To this day, artisans in those regions are making hams in ambient conditions with no artificial temperature controls. As a result, their hams are distinct to a year and region, much like wine.
Raw feed: Is country ham safe to eat uncooked?
Yes. USDA-approved country hams have been cured and are safe to eat without further cooking. The producer decides whether to label the ham RTE (ready-to-eat) or NRTE (not-ready-to-eat). If a ham is labeled NRTE, USDA law requires the producer to including cooking instructions on the ham, advising the consumer to essentially cook all the juices out of the meat until it turns into a salt-encrusted piece of shoe leather. Most producers opt to label hams NRTE, partly to avoid the scrutiny of inspectors but also because the custom in this country is to cook hams anyway. This practice is unfortunate: American cured hams are safe to eat uncooked, like prosciutto or other cured meats, and typically taste better that way.

Now we’re cookin’:
Americans typically eat their country hams cooked (overcooked, in fact –turning them into salt licks), just as we’ve traditionally prepared the more common brined city hams. We inherited this practice from the British. The famous country hams of Bayonne, France and Westphalia, Germany are now eaten exclusively cured but were traditionally eaten both cooked and uncooked. Italian prosciutto and Spanish Serrano hams have always been eaten uncooked. As you’ll see in the uncooked American hams offered for tasting, country hams need not be cooked to be delicious.

Proud to be an American

Countries in the ham belt have distinct methods of curing and serving ham. Just as you wouldn’t call a California pinot noir a Burgundy (even though it’s made from the same grape), you shouldn’t call our regional cured hams “American prosciutto” or “American Serrano” when they’re served uncooked. Hams from Virginia, Kentucky and other states hold their own against Italian and Spanish hams and should be referred to by their proper designation: artisanal country hams. Confusing the names does both parties a disservice.

This little piggy

Most hams come from pigs that were bred for commercial use and raised in factories. Factory pigs gain weight quickly, bear many offspring, and, to suit today’s consumer, have large amount of lean meat and very little fat. Lean meat wasn’t always a priority, however. Until the rise of vegetable oils and shortening, lard was one of the most important pig products, and pigs were raised to be as fat as possible. America’s fat paranoia has made fatty pork less popular, which is good news for the modern pork industry: Lean meat requires just a quarter of the calories to produce than fat does. The new leaner pigs therefore take much less time and money to feed: a mere 2 1/3 pounds of feed provides a pound of weight gain for a pig, most of it very lean. Of course, super-lean pork does not make a great ham. A dry-cured ham without fat feels rough in the mouth, is overly salty and doesn’t have the characteristic texture of an old-fashioned country ham. Some big pork producers have started putting a little more fat back into their pork, and we can only hope that others will follow.

Large-scale pig farmers choose specific breeds for their growth, reproductive, and lean-meat traits, but some smaller scale farmers who are more concerned with the end product prefer breeds that produce great-textured and flavorful pork. Among major commercial breeds, Durocs have the most intra-muscular fat and make great hams.

Some older-heritage breed pigs with great fatty meat such as Berkshire could be produced on a larger scale, if consumers started demanding this type of pork. But other great tasting ones such as Tamworth (a friendly pasture pig and great forager) and Ossabaw (extremely rare, extremely fatty pigs originally brought to America by the Conquistadors) simply don’t translate to mass production for specific reasons. The Tamworth, for instance, doesn’t built up muscles—and therefore doesn’t bulk up quickly enough for larger-scale farmers. And the Ossabaw is small, too fatty, and mean as hell, so it’s hard to handle.
They are what they eat
Prior to the rise of large-scale industrial farming, pigs were usually fed scraps and byproducts from the farm. Pigs are voracious omnivores and will fatten themselves with almost anything you throw in front of them. Throughout history they’ve proven to be thrifty animals on a farm, because they essentially turn waste and garbage into tasty meat. Of course the flavor of that meat has always been determined by a pig’s particular location and diet. Brewers would feed their pigs spent barley mash (this doesn’t produce good pork). Dairy farmers in northern Italy would feed pigs leftover whey from cheese manufacturing, which produced incredibly tasty meat; this is still considered an ideal diet for pigs that will become prosciutto. In Virginia, pigs traditionally fed on leftover peanuts and peanut greens in the past. Nuts and oily legumes build up good intra-muscular fat, and that particular type of fat is more liquid, resulting in a silky final product. Peanuts are no longer a waste crop, however, so they are no longer part of the pig’s diet. Perhaps the happiest pigs were those who lived on farms near the forest, because they were allowed to forage the woods for hickory nuts and acorns. This feeding style is called mast feeding, and it produces fantastic ham with similar properties to the peanut eaters. Very few pigs are raised this way commercially today, and what was a thrifty practice in the past has become an incredible luxury. The famed Iberico ham from Spain, raised on acorns, fetches a fantastic price and is not yet imported into this country (Note: it is imported now).
The fresh ham
When choosing a fresh ham to cure, producers select their size, then decide how they want the fat trimmed and how long they want the shank cut. Most American producers begin the curing process with hams that weigh in between 20 and 23 pounds. Smaller hams would dry out too quickly, and larger hams could spoil before the cure penetrates the meat. Some Spanish producers of larger Serrano style hams, however, lean toward gigantic hams, which, if cured correctly, have a few advantages: They come from larger, fatter pigs, which have more aging potential and more flavor. The fat ameliorates the saltiness and dryness of the meat, and the hams dry out less over the two-or- more-year aging process used in Spain. A two-year-old American ham tastes great but is drier and saltier tasting than a larger Spanish ham would be. Shank length is also a matter of preference. The Italians and the Spanish prefer a very long shank, sometimes including the hoof; the Spanish Iberico “pata negra” comes with a black hoof, a sign of its pedigree. Some producers contend that hams spoil around the shank and therefore request short shanks. Ham producers must also consider how the fat is trimmed. Prosciutto makers leave all the skin on the ham to protect it from over-drying. Some Spanish even out the drying of the ham by cutting the skin off in an easily identifiable V shape. Americans typically cut off a collar of skin around the butt end of the ham.
Cure genius

Every year the staff at Colonial Williamsburg salts down some hams in the really old school way --using 18th century implements. Modern production isn't much different.

Another shot from Williamsburg.

The curing process begins by rubbing the fresh ham with salt and sometimes sugar, spices and nitrates. Italian prosciutto and Spanish Serrano hams are made with a pure salt cure and no added nitrates or nitrites.  Some American hams are also nitrate free. When used, nitrates ensure a pink color and cured flavor in a short amount of time, and provide some anti-microbial benefits as well. Nitrates are not a modern addition to the curing process; they have been added to hams in the form of saltpeter for hundreds of years and in the form of impure salts for millennia. Meat naturally contains a small amount of nitrates, however, which allow it to take on a beautiful color on its own. The longer a ham is aged, the fewer added nitrates are necessary. Many American hams are cured with brown or white sugar in addition to salt. The sugar is not for sweetness, but rather serves to soften the harshness of the salt and the toughening effects of nitrates. Red and black pepper is sometimes added as well, lending some flavor but also discouraging bugs from attacking the ham. Machines are typically used to rub the cure into factory-produced ham, but as any ham artisan will tell you, the hand of the skilled salter is important. All of the American hams at the exhibit are hand salted.
Ham’s off!
After finishing the cure, many producers still use traditional methods to protect their hams against pesky bugs like red-legged ham beetles and cheese skippers. Some producers cure each ham in its own bag, using only the amount of cure necessary, and then leave the ham in the bag for protection. Others bag their hams after the cure. Some coat the outside of the ham with spices like black or red pepper to deter bugs. Long ago, some hams were dipped in hickory ash as anti-bug insurance. Prosciutto is rubbed with a lard mixture for the same reason, and also to slow the drying process.
How’s it hanging?
How to hang the ham: hock up or hock down? It’s not as silly a question as you might think.  Hanging hock up, as you see in most stores, causes the ham to assume a narrow bullet shape.  This helps hams dry out evenly, which the Europeans like. Most Americans hang their hams hock down, because it pulls the ham into a squatter “ham” shape and leads to moister ham, which suits the American palate.
Smoke them if you’ve got them
We usually associate the smoking process with flavor, but in the past—both in America and in Europe—smoking provided an extra layer of food safety: It helped kill bacteria. Smoking in Europe depends mainly on geography. In the southern sections of the ham belt, such as Spain and most of Italy, producers have left their hams un-smoked, while those in Alpine Italy, Germany, the UK and Belgium have smoked their hams. In the United States, Tidewater Virginia is known for heavy smoking and North Carolina is known for little or no smoking, but everywhere else it’s the producer’s preference and not the location that determines the use of smoke. Farmers just miles from each other might use entirely different techniques of curing and/or smoking. Those who do smoke their hams in the U.S. tend to use hickory or oak; Europeans also use hardwoods but sometimes add aromatics such as juniper.

Age before beauty

Hams hanging at Colonel Newsom's

Producing a perfect ham is a balancing act. While aging develops and concentrates a ham’s rich flavor, it also reduces the ham’s moisture and accentuates its saltiness. Fat inside the ham helps counteract these effects, and is therefore a key part of aging. A ham with generous amounts of fat can be aged longer for more intense flavor, without drying out. The local flora of a region helps determine the flavor of a ham.  Micro-ecosystems are so important that some producers say they can taste and smell the difference in hams that are from two different aging rooms at the same facility. During aging, molds grow on the outside of hams (molds that are specific to the ham house). The mold-covered hams don’t look all that pretty on the outside, but the mold, much like the type that grows on a rind of a cheese, helps develop special flavors in the meat. Enzymes inside meat, which are partially dependent on good bacteria and molds in the ham house, break down the protein and fat in the meat over time to give ham its characteristic flavor. This prime of this process is in the summer, when temperature and humidity is high. A two-year old ham does not benefit from two full years of aging per se, but rather from two full summers of aging, with some time in between.

The Slice is Right

W A Van Berkel: The inventor of the meat slicer shows off his baby.

W. A. Van Berkel patented the first commercial meat slicer in 1898, ushering in an era of modern slicing and eventually eliminating the need for highly skilled slicing personnel at butcher shops and delis. In the days before this technology, prosciutto and serrano ham was left on the bone and painstakingly sliced into strips, parallel with the muscle fibers. Many Spanish butchers have maintained this slicing tradition, however in the US the vast majority of these European hams are now boned out and machine sliced paper-thin across the grain. Ham aficionados still insist on slicing meat the old way, parallel to the grain, claiming that slicing this way increases the chewiness (some might say toughness) as well as the perception of flavor. They also claim that machine slicers, especially fast-spinning modern ones, melt the fat of the slices, thereby ruining the mouth-feel of the ham. This is debatable—but the advantages of machine slicing are not. Slicing a boned ham on a machine reduces waste and produces a uniform, extremely tender slice. And we can thank Berkel for the proliferation of prosciutto-style ham: The emergence of machine slicing has brought thinly sliced cured ham to people around the world, and to many who would never have gone to the trouble of tasting hams that needed to be hand sliced by a trained carver.

Left: The very first slicer, Model 1; Top: Model C; Bottom: Model L.

For the Model B Berkel went win an overhead arm, later discontinued.

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Cooking Issues – October Blitz

October 23rd, 2010 · Uncategorized

by Nastassia Lopez

This October the Cooking Issues team has been zipping about doing demos and such instead of posting like we ought to. We thought we’d share some of the highlights through photos. Normal posting will resume shortly.

We kicked off October with a demo for the New York Culinary Experience. We did some of our favorites –live Alaskan king crab, huge lobster, rotovapping, etc, etc.

Live Alaskan king crab. So delicious.

Dave flew to Germany for the Bar Convent Berlin where he did a lecture with Eben Klemm on the Science of Shaking and Stirring:

Eben Klemm: our friend and fellow cocktail expert with a plate of echt Deutsch Schweinshaxe.

We made a (better) version of McGriddles for the Cooking Channel. We make maple syrup balls using the reverse alginate technique and fold them into buttermilk pancake batter. They pop in your mouth. Normally, Dave isn’t a fan of little popping balls, but he thought them justified in this case.

The crew testing reverse alginate syrup balls for the pancakes.

Dave doing a demo at The Harlem Children’s Zone supporting the upcoming food and science exhibit at the Liberty Science Center.

Dave at The Harlem Children's Zone

He fed the audience gymnemic acid, which temporarily obliterated their sense of sweet. He was opening for a discussion panel with Dr. Oz, Rachel Ray, and Alonzo Mourning; but just like in his college band days, he didn’t get to hang with the headliners.

Kentucky: land of bourbon whiskey and country ham –two of our favorite things. Nils and Dave weren’t only drinking and eating –they were learning (we might get a few posts out of that trip).

Hams hanging at Finchville Farms, a traditional American country ham producer. They normally age them for only 9 months, so if you want them older (and you do) call ahead and they'll put one aside.

Brown Foreman's Cooperage. You wouldn't believe the factory. If you are offered a tour, bring earplugs.

Fermenting mash at Maker's Mark.Yes, they let you taste it.

A mini-still they use for testing at Buffalo Trace.

Dave and Nastassia flew to London for a rotovap demo. While there, they made a special trip to Brogdale Farm – the world’s largest culinary fruit collection (and one of Dave’s top places to see in the world). He’s working on a longer post of our fruity adventure, but here’s a teaser:

Brogdale Farm: heaven on earth. A few of their thousands of apple varieties. Beyond that, hundreds of pears. Beyond that, hundreds of plums, many many nuts and hundreds of cherry varieties (not to mention their stellar currant and gooseberry collections). In the distance, pheasants and rabbit. We could have stayed there for days.

Reaching our fruit intake limit. Dave making the Dave Face.

Just yesterday we just finished the Harold McGee class, and October ain’t even over yet.

Harold McGee, spreading the gospel of delicious.

-The Cooking Issues Team

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Live Dienstag von Berlin: Kochen Issues Radio

October 4th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Guten Tag! 

Dave is currently in Germany, giving a lecture on the science of shaking/stirring at the Berlin Bar Show with our friend Eben Klemm.  We hate reruns just as much as the next guy, so Cooking Issues Radio will be recorded live tomorrow (Tuesday) from the land of wurst, lager and schnitzel during it’s regularly scheduled noon-1pm EST slot. 

With the help of our Heritage programming buddies, listeners can still connect to Dave via telephone: 718-497-2128.  If you can’t make it to a phone, email questions to Nastassia before 10am Tuesday: lopez.nastassia@gmail.com

We’re expecting quite the show!  Thanks so much for listening.

Prost!

Nastassia

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