Would not a ham by any other name taste as smokey?

First, my apologies for slacking on posting. My project is really winding down (or has finished doing so already, really). But here I will start on some final thoughts in my last destination…

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Greetings from Schwarzwald (“Black Forest”) – home of those fancy carved cuckoo clocks, layered cake, and yes, Black Forest ham. (Oh yes, I am in Germany now, by the way)
One of the first things I wanted to know when I got to the region, and that I was busy asking everyone about, was what, exactly, makes “Black Forest Ham” have that name? Everyone thought this was a very silly question. “It’s just prepared a special way,” is generally the answer I received, after a laugh. Well, turns out that the reason I found this to be such a mystery, while Germans do not, is perhaps that most Black Forest Ham that I’ve seen in the US actually has nothing to do with the real thing (except, one hopes, having come from a pig).
Here is what Black Forest Ham actually looks like:

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In a sense, it is German proscuitto (a lot of local restaurants even serve it with melon, Italian style). It turns out, though, that Black Forest Ham was awarded (in 1997) a “Protected Geographic Indication” seal, meaning that it is kind of Germany’s version of champagne.
Ok I’m kidding, but it is the same idea; only “Black forest ham” that is actually from the Black Forest region can be so labelled. Otherwise that is false advertising (even if it is technically made the exact same way).
Well, you may still be asking, what exactly is so special about this nice, thinly sliced, oh-so-smokey charcuterie? Well, I’ll tell you what I learned from the Association of Black Forest Ham Producers. First, you must have some high quality, bones removed ham. Supposedly boneless meat keeps longer, who knew? (a bit more on that high quality ham in a minute). Then, you need some fir trees. (Turns out they have quite a few of these in the Black Forest.) oh but first, make sure you give that ham a good rub with garlic, pepper, coriander and juniper berries, and maybe some other spices you like, by hand. After that…(and here I quote…)

“After the hams are salted and placed in special pickling containers, the meat takes on all the aroma of the spices. The salt takes all the water out of it, causing a brine to develop, in which the ham spends another two weeks or so.

After this the ham is brought into so-called dedicated curing rooms – cooled rooms where they “afterburn” another 14 days before going into the cold smoking chamber. There they hang in special smoking towers up to three weeks, developing their aroma, colour and taste. They are smoked at 25 degrees over natural fir and fir sawdust from the Black Forest.”

And now I, and you, know what makes Black Forest Ham special! It is true, then, that you could not have the real thing without the Black Forest itsself – one could arugue about the terroir of fir trees from various locations, but it’s likely true at least that a particular type of wood, with a particular moisture content, gives off a unique flavor in smoking.

BUT it seems that the ham itself need not come from the Black Forest. In fact I have not seen a single pig, just a lot of dairy cows. It sounds like the majority of the meat actually comes from France. So even the special protection on the Black Forest name may not be keeping the agriculture all that local. (to be fair, all of Europe could fit inside the US, so it depends on what your idea of “local” is) So while I am fascinated that a smoked ham is given a special designation by the EU as a product of particular geographical and cultural significance, it seems like turning that product in to a gourmet speciality may actually do some harm to the “localness”, of you will. The producers of Schwarzwälder Schinken seem to think that the ham alone is reason enough to come on vacation to the region, though, so perhaps it does its part to improve the image of this corner of Germany. (as if there was much improvement needed!…)

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One response to “Would not a ham by any other name taste as smokey?

  1. I will never be able to think of Black Forest ham in quite the same way again! When do you head home? Are you going to the Watson Fellows conference in August? Can’t wait to hear more about your journey. Best, Steve

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