I noted in an earlier post how autumn was the time for preserving fruits and vegetables against the winter months to come. It was also essential to be able to build up stocks of meat. A high proportion of farm animals would be killed at the onset of winter, simply because there would not be enough forage to keep them alive. As a result, there would be a short-term excess of meat, quickly followed by a shortage — only partially filled by hunting and eating the doves from your dovecot, if you could afford one. If you didn’t manage to preserve autumn-slaughtered meat in some way, much of it would be lost.
Although some grand families had ice houses from quite early in the eighteenth century, it took a surprisingly long time for people to realise the preserving power of freezing food. It was never common, even well into the twentieth century, probably because the volume of ice needed was too great and there were few containers of suitable size that could be made sufficiently insulated to stop everything melting in a few days. So far as I have been able to discover, the first attempts to preserve meat by the use of cold happened in the nineteenth century. In some cases, the carcasses of hunted animals, like deer, would be hung above the ice in the ice house. Cold then, but not frozen; the equivalent of a modern fridge rather than a freezer.
Pickling or Salting Meat
Nearly every family who could afford it kept a pig or two. When the pig was slaughtered, some of the meat would be shared with neighbours and friends, who would repay the compliment when their own pig met its appointed end. Even so, there would be far too much left to eat before it became rancid. The solution was to preserve it by turning it into ham or bacon.
Almost no one does this today. Bacon is too easily available at any butcher’s shop or supermarket. Back in Georgian times, of course, if you wanted bacon you had to make it yourself—and what a lengthy, laborious job it was!
As the recipe above shows, just the preliminary pickling in salt or saltpetre took most of a week. The main salting took another ten days, after which it had to be boiled, the scum taken off and yet more pickling salt added.After that, the meat had to stand again, covered in brine.
This boiling and re-pickling seems to have been the heart of the process. Do it once only, and the bacon would keep for six months. Do it twice or three times, and the bacon would keep for a year.
Even then you weren’t finished. More brine was needed and the bacon was stored in a tub or jar, sealed to keep out the air. The injunction to make sure it was “ … put down as hard as you can …” means it should be packed into the container as tightly as possible. Then the neck of the jar would be sealed with fat or butter and the whole thing stored away somewhere dry and cool—like one of the huge cellars that are under many houses of this period.
After all that work by the servants, one wonders how much of the resulting bacon they would ever have tasted themselves. Rather little, I imagine.
This recipe comes from Katherine Windham’s Boke of Cookery and Housekeeping, compiled in the early years of the eighteenth century, and transcribed by my friends Bonnie Lovelock and Roger Sykes.
I had no idea it was such a laborious job. And the salt levels in the meat must have been very high. You can purchase salt-cured ham here – we’ve had it, but it was so salty! We were drinking a lot of water that day!
Yes, very salty. Modern ham and bacon are cured with a wet mixture, I believe, which is why you get a kind of whitish discharge in the pan if you fry them.
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