Cave Cured Ham Eben van Tonder 1 July 2023
I got a fascinating mail from Ian Rigley, a director at Ey Up Mi Duck Charcuterie with the most interesting question. It is related to meat being cured and matured in caves. Cheese is matured in the same manner in the UK. He sent me this photo beneath an old coaching inn that dates back to the 15th century. The microclimate is ideal as the sandstone absorbs moisture giving an ideal R/H temp between 12 – 14c all year round. Is there evidence of meat being cured in caves?
The Use of Caves in Prehistory
There is no doubt that meat curing started in caves. Work I’ve done on the prehistory of meat curing indicates the widespread use of urine and sweat which would undoubtedly have found its way into food preparations, as it did into medicine. The urine was kept in throughs within caves for use. The presence of nitrates, nitrites and salts in urine would have been a natural progression of meat preservation. Since humans started living in caves, heat and natural humidity control would have been noticed by ancient humans. (see How Did Ancient Humans Preserve Food?)
Modern curers refer to the curing chamber built with modern materials and methods as the “curing cave.” It emphasizes the concept of utilizing a controlled environment with characteristics similar to those found in caves. The fact that it is used in this way is likely a linguistic homage to the historical practice of curing in natural caves. In modern contexts, it generally refers to dedicated curing rooms or facilities designed to mimic the beneficial conditions found in caves.
On the one hand, it is strongly supports the suspicion that historically curing was done in caves in mountains or hills. On the other hand, it makes an online search for the use of actual physical caves for curing challenging as in every instance, the exact meaning of the use of the words must be determined. The mere fact that the term “curing cave” is used does not necesseraly mean that it refers to the current use of a natural caves for curing meat. All the references I give below feres to the use of actual caves for curing. In some instances, the cave I references are actual hollow structures in hountains or hills. Most of the time, in my references it is natural, but in some instances it refers to man-made cavities within mountains or hills or dug underneath buildings.
Cave Curing In Recent History
A survey of online mentions of cave-cured meats presents a unified picture that the assessment is correct that historically meat curing was done, also in caves.
Writing about the culatello, Jason Molinari, in his blog, Cured Meats, the Art and the Craft, writes the following. “The flavour of culatello is indescribably delicious . . . It has a soft, supple texture similar to prosciutto, but a tiny bit dryer. The flavour is robust, and redolent of the 500-year-old, humid, caves where they spend their 12 months drying. . . the cure is exceedingly simple. Nothing to interfere with the pork flavour and the flavour of the 500-year-old caves.” (Cured Meats)
Ed Smith (aka@rocketandsquash) writes in his article, How to Cure Meat “I’ve visited the garden sheds, prep kitchens and established drying rooms of hobbyist and established curers in the UK; also centuries-old caves, drying chambers and industrial factories in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Scandinavia.”
Houston Chronicle reports that “Iberian gourmands have enjoyed cured ham – a pig’s haunch or shoulder rolled in salt and hung in cellars or caves for 18 to 36 months – since prehistoric times.”
Emma Ivarsson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences writes that “Colonnata lard was born from the unusual way in which the quarrymen of Carrara marble used to store and season lard. This fine cold cut is made from pork lard cured in local marble quarries and caves. Layers of lard are alternated with pepper, salt, sage and rosemary. The marble used in the curing process is also rubbed with garlic and the maturation time can last anything from 6 to 10 months. Lardo di Colonnata boasts the PGI European quality label.”
Clay Trainum, a hog farmer from Waynesboro (Autumn Olive Farms) is quoted in the article “The making of country ham” for newsleader.com that “One is the diet of the animal and number two is the moulds and bacteria present in the air. Spanish hams that are cured in caves and grottoes have their own distinctive finished flavours, and it has a lot to do with cave moulds.”
Cinco Jotas involves “curing the hams in naturally ventilated caves.” (Cinco Jotas) Iberico ham is “likewise . . . transferred to caves or ‘bodegas’ for . . . 12 to 18 months” of curing. (Proper Spanosh Tapas) “Bodegas” refers to wine cellars in particular, but in Spain, hams are also cured here. These bodegas are not always natural caves and are often carved into the rock. Señorio de Montanera writes that their Iberico Hams are matured in “natural bodegas in rock-carved caves.” “At the end of the summer, the pieces are moved to our natural cellars carved into the rock, which have more stable and cooler temperatures than the drying sheds and offer softer lighting. Iberico Hams are cured very slowly and remain in the curing cellars between 18 and 36 months, or 14 to 24 months in the case of shoulder ham.”
Describing the production of Serrano Hams, Gayle Hartley writes that Serrano hams are either called “a ‘bodega’ or ‘curado’ ham . . . cured for 12-14 months; a ‘reserva ham’ . . . cured for 14-18 months and a ‘gran reserva'”, cured for over 18 months. “Traditionally these “bodegas” were caves because the conditions inside are perfect for a maturing ham’s constant temperature, airy and dry, indeed many hams even today undergo the whole curing process in a cave.”
Cave Curing in England
I have no doubt that certain caves in England are not suitable for dry curing due to the climate. Ed from the Borough Market in London writes that he “once spoke with a British charcutier who said there wasn’t much he could learn from an Italian about curing because if he followed their instruction, leaving his meats to dry in caves set into the hills in Monmouthshire, he’d end up with mouldy meat. Italians – and particularly those in this belt of northern Italy – on the other hand, are blessed with a particular environment, with just the right humidity, heat, and wind flow, which means the cuts of meat they cure with salt are turned into delicious salumi.” The fact that the caves in the south-east of Wales are not suitable for meat curing does not mean that none of the limestone caves across Brittain is suitable for it.
One well-known example is the practice of cave curing in the Peak District of England, particularly in the area of Derbyshire. An example is the village of Castleton, which has a long-standing tradition of cave curing. The local Blue John Cavern in Castleton was historically used for curing hams due to its unique geological properties, including limestone formations and stable conditions. Hams were hung in the caves to age and develop flavour, taking advantage of the natural temperature and humidity control.
What I lack is solid references, but I will be contacting Blue John Cavern in Castleton to confirm the information.
A quick review of online evidence shows that cave-cured meat, as in meats that are cured in actual caves, natural or man made, is part of our curing history. Ian Rigley’s instinct is right that because the natural condition in such caves favours meat curing. Humans lived in caves and must have known from antiquity that the ideal conditions exist within caves to manage humidity with or without fires. Long after humans left the caves for other dwellings, caves would have been used to cure meat.
I will continue to examine the evidence, but from only a brief investigation, the evidence is clear. Thank you, Ian, for the photo you shared with me and the fascinating subject.
Bogdas. Señorio de Montanera
The Homes of the Past, Talbot, F. Belgravia: a London magazine; London Vol. 5, (Nov 1874): 122-125
Gayle Hartley, G. Serrano Hams
Ivarsson, E., Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Trainum, C. The Making of Country Ham
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