Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Essence of Ham.

Today, to brighten up these hard economic times, I give you one of my favourite stories of reckless extravagance in the search for food perfection. It concerns the eighteenth century Charles de Rohan, prince de Soubise (the supposed inventor of the sauce that bears his name - “the discovery of which was more glorious than twenty victories”). The Prince “rejoiced in a cook of large views, economy being his least weakness” by the name of Bertrand. One day, wishing to give a magnificent supper to the “beauty and wit of Paris”, the prince ordered Bertrand to draw up a proposed menu and list of provisions. Apparently the chef’s estimate “had no hypocrisy about it; it was sublimely reckless.” The first item on the list was for fifty hams.

‘What Bertrand,’ said the prince, ‘you surely are not in earnest? Fifty hams! Do you wish then to treat my whole regiment ?’ ‘No, my prince only one of those hams will appear on the table; but the other forty nine are not the less necessary for flavouring, whitening, garnishing,’ &c &c. ‘Bertrand, you rob me, and this article shall not pass.’ ‘Ah monseigneur,’ said the artist with difficulty choking his rising choler; ‘you do not know our resources. You have but to order, and these fifty hams which now so much annoy you shall be dissolved into a crystal phial not bigger than my thumb.’ The prince laughed, signified assent by a nod of the head, and the charge for the fifty hams passed muster.’

Every chef should wish for such a master.

I have previously given you a recipe which requires essence of ham – an eighteenth century Rich Caper Sauce. Methinks it is unlikely that any of you would purchase forty nine hams to get some concentrated stock, so here is a different interpretation from one of my favourite sources, Domestic Economy, for rich and poor, by a lady (1827).

Essence of Ham.
Essence of ham is not expensive; so far the reverse, that there is much waste when it is not made: and when it is attended to, hams are always higher-flavoured. If cured at home more attention is paid to the manner of curing them, and also in the manner of cooking, in cleaning, and paring which is of more consequence to the flavour of the ham than is generally imagined. If they are cooked in wine ale or cider these liquors are not lost .When the ham is taken up, the essence is either to be immediately finished or put into a proper pan in a cold cellar till it is convenient; part of it of course will be reduced to glaze the ham. When the essence is to be finished take off the cake of fat, and reduce it to one third; strain it through a close wet linen bag while warm. As ham skin is excellent for covering meats that are braising they may also be put in from time to time in the stock pot, as they will dissolve and add to the flavour and richness of the sauce.

Quotation for the Day.

Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.
Oscar Wilde.


Unknown said...

Wow Janet. Reading that recipe brought me back to my time teaching gastronomy to freshman at the Culinary Institute of America. I used to assign research papers and - I swear on my father's grave- I read every letter of every word of every sentence and ore often than I care to remember I'd run into paragraphs like this one (the ham glaze recipe) that looked like they made sense but on close examination conveyed little or no meaning to me at all.

Am I misreading this or is it next to impossible to make ham glaze from that recipe?

Oh wait a minute. Is "essence" here the same as "fond" -the gelatin rich juice that ends up in the bottom of a pan after a roast has cooled? If yes, then it all makes sense.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Bob - I think what this recipe really demonstrates is that word usage and recipe writing are inexact (and often sloppy) sciences! I was going to use a recipe that was more nearly an "essence", but decided on this one as it is more "do-able" today - although I am not sure why I decided that way as I dont normally let impossibility stop me!

Peter Hertzmann said...

Actually, Bob, the “essence” is the stock resulting from cooking—simmering—the ham, in this case starting with “wine, ale, or cider.” Once the stock is chilled and the fat removed, it is then reduced and strained. (“When the essence is to be finished, take off the cake of fat, and reduce it to one-third ; strain it through a close wet linen bag while warm.”) This produces the “essence.” The “glaze” is similar, only reduced further. There are further clues to all this on the following page with the recipe for Essence of Beef.

See pages 174 and 175.

Anonymous said...

This might be an appropriate place to pose a question that I also sent to your in-box. Does anybody in Britain salt their own chine of pork anymore? I am reading Simpson's Complete System of Cookery and was intrigued by the roast chine of pork with applesauce. The recipe begins, "it should be sprinkled with salt and hung up at least four or five days before using."
I would like to try it (an American rack of spareribs is an equivalent cut, correct--or should I try to find baby back ribs?), but I would like more precise instructions.

Unfortunately, I can't find any recipe that starts from scratch more recent than about a hundred years ago and they all assume a base of knowledge I don't have. More modern recipes begin with a storebought salted chine. Can I make my own in an ordinary modern kitchen, or should I just order one?

I would be very grateful for any assistance with this problem. If I can make this recipe work, it should be a nice change from the usual barbecue.

Jennifer Hansen
jenniferhansen at g c i dot n e t

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Jennifer. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this one. I have no idea if anyone in Britain salts their own chine of pork anymore, as I am in Australia! Certainly in this subtropical part of Australia, I would use the refrigerator for this (especially at Christmas, which is in mid-summer here)! A good local butcher should be able to help you with doing this in whatever your own particular climate is like at Christmas.

Jennifer Hansen said...

So to replicate the conditions: sea salt, in a dish in the fridge, on a rack--? Non-airtight cover, I presume? (Kitchen towel?) And I guess that I should take anything odoriferous out of the fridge, correct?

Now, the recipe explains that a pork chine is the tender part of the animal between the shoulderblades, but modern references call this cut "spareribs." I have been going back and forth about which American cut to use. I finally found a diagram of American rib cuts just now (if you're interested, it's here: and I think my best bet is to order a full rack of country-style ribs, which are indeed very tender and fatty as well; in fact they're a type of chop. I have never seen them served except as slow-cooked moist barbecue. Thoughts?

The Old Foodie said...

My thoughts are, Jennifer, that what you are proposing would work well, but I am not an expert in acceptable modern methods of preparation of this sort of thing, so I still think you should talk to a local butcher!

Jennifer Hansen said...

I don't think we have an actual butcher anymore, in the classic sense. We have people who portion and wrap some meat and take other wrapped portioned meat that was last handled in Washington State out of freezer trucks. I once asked the "butchers" at Safeway to take the excess tallow off of a lamb shoulder for me (not wanting to pay for lamb tallow) and what I got was a pile of lamb chunks. But the folks at the other store may be more knowledgeable. I'll ask.