- The Meta-Politics of Pickling Survival Hams.
The Curious World of Curing Meat: My Journey So far…
Chorizo, pancetta, jamon Iberico – I’ve wanted to get into making cured meats for years now. For the vast majority of our ancestors, preserving food was a matter of life and death. It’s not an easy thing to get right, in-fact during my first attempt I either over-shot the Nitrite levels or injected too much brine into the meat and the thing came out cherry-red! Heartbroken, I was forced to dispose of an enormous chunk of wild Boar meat.
Today cured meats are mostly prized for their delicious flavours and melt-in-the-mouth textures, but to our ancestors they possessed a far greater importance. One which I believe will become increasingly relevant as industrial civilisation continues down its death-spiral.
There are various methods of preserving meat. Most involve drying as well as salting, drawing out water to reduce bacterial and fungal growth. Those types of salt which are high in Nitrate (like salt peter) also work to prevent oxidation. Sugars diffuse into the cellular fluids, turning the water therein to ‘jelly’ making it inaccessible to anything which might spoil the meat. The characteristic ‘pink’ colour is the result of using nitrite.
All the equipment you need to make your own hams…
One crock (ideally earthenware/ ceramic), one pressure cooker or large saucepan with a lid, meat (I used some local Wild Boar hams, one on the bone and two not), Salt. Sugar and Sodium Nitrite.
The Lore and Ore of Curing: An Explosive History!
In times past, people noticed that certain salts were better at preserving meat, giving a nicer flavour as well as longer shelf-life (or maybe it was cave-life back then)… anyway, this was because the salts in question were naturally high in Nitrates. Today, the Nitrates in our food come from the Haber-Bosch process, developed during the first world war – as a means to manufacture gun-powder. Until then, most Salt Peter came from Caliche, a rock found in Chile over which some of the first battles of the first world war were fought.
Whereas it is possible to cure meat without using Nitrates and indeed some of the best cured meats in the world are made in this way, its far more complex and requires very specific environmental conditions (or a great deal of luck) to work successfully.
Many folks able to see looming economic ‘uncertainties’ bulk-buy staples in the form of dried foods (beans, rice and other grains) which require lots of water to make edible and also contain various ‘anti-nutrients’ like gluten, phytase and tannings which not only prevent your body from absorbing other vitamins and mineral, but can lead to autoimmune disorders and other health problems. Another popular ‘survival food’ are tins of baked-beans and military rations (MRE’s) which tend to be loaded with simple sugars and (most concerning) are entirely devoid of any healthy fats – the most important macro-nutrient you’d need to survive and be healthy long-term.
The reality of the situation is: having the ability to preserve food, especially fats and proteins, without electricity, refrigeration, etc, may one day (soon?) save your life. Though I used an electric cooker, every stage of the curing and cooking process, could have been done on an open fire.
Curing through time and place…
Its not known when, nor how ‘we’ first started to cure the flesh of our prey. The tribes of the sub-arctic tundra are known to bury Reindeer carcasses under rocks, insulating the meat and allowing bacterial fermentation to occur. Of course, preserving food in sub-zero temperatures is easy, and this practice likely began as a means of protecting ones quarry from wild animals. Nevertheless, this process results in bacteria pre-digesting the meat, which makes it both tastier and more nutritious.
After a few years, maggots fully colonise the Reindeer carcass. They eat lean meat, converting proteins into fat. A process which would have, had it been more widely known about, saved thousands of lives during the European colonisation of the Americas; during which ‘Rabbit starvation’ (the result of only eating lean meat, with little fat) killed huge numbers of people.
The natives, of course, knew the importance of a balanced fat-to-meat ratio and purposely hunted the older Reindeer bucks for their back fat. This was then used to make pemmican, the famous 50/50 combination of dried, pulverised meat and rendered fat – over which whole wars were fought. Even with a 50/50 mix, the calorific value came from 80% saturated fats and only 20% of the calories came from the protein. Pemmican, often mixed with seasonal berries (for vitamins) is said to be one of the few foods that you can live on, indefinitely.