Mark Hix recipes: British ham can be air-dried, grilled ... and even baked in hay

Good British ham provides the foundation for our chef's simple and satisfying dishes
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I usually nip into the local Tesco in Axminster to grab a few basics when I arrive off the train en route to a weekend in Dorset. While there I'll have a good look around to see what's available, as I don't want to be writing recipes with unobtainable ingredients.

A few weeks back, my eyes were drawn to a basketful of morel mushrooms. Now this surprised me. I mean, you don't normally find them even in the highest of high-end greengrocers in London, let alone in Axminster on a Saturday. Then I saw the price and wondered whether Tesco had made a mistake. I looked again to make sure I wasn't dreaming – but no: 100g packets for two quid each. I pay three or four times that at wholesale in London. I'm fairly sure it was a mistake – but it certainly made my dinner party guests happy. And that wasn't all: I spied some delicious-looking Wiltshire-cure smoked ham joints which were also a bargain, so a few of those also went into my basket. I was, of course, careful not to crush the bargain morels.

Is Axminster turning into the new Bray, I wonder?

Hay-baked ham with cider sauce

Serves 6-8

Baking meat in hay is a really old fashioned method of cooking. We often use it to bake legs of lamb, mixing in sprigs of rosemary or lavender, which impart a lovely aroma.

1 boneless gammon or ham joint (smoked or unsmoked) weighing about 1.5kg
A couple of handfuls of hay, soaked in cold water for a few hours or overnight
A few sprigs of lavender or rosemary
1 x 250-330ml bottle of cider

For the sauce

A good knob of butter
1 shallot, peeled, halved and finely chopped
½ tsp flour
120ml cider
350ml chicken stock, plus any ham cooking liquid
1 dessert apple, peeled, cored and cut into a fine ¼cm dice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Remove the hay from the water, squeezing out any excess, then mix with the rosemary or lavender. Put some hay in the base of a roasting tray, place the ham on top and pack the rest of the hay on to the ham.

Pour about a quarter of the bottle of cider over the ham and bake for around 1½ hours, pouring more cider over the ham as it is cooking.

Once cooked, strain any cooking liquid into a container. The ham will stay warm in the hay or you can keep it warm on the lowest oven setting.

While the ham is cooking, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and gently cook the shallot for a minute or so. Stir in the flour then gradually stir or whisk in the cider. Bring to the boil and reduce by half, then add the stock and continue simmering until the sauce has reduced and thickened. Any liquid from the meat can now be added and you can turn up the heat to further reduce and thicken the sauce. If the cooking liquor is too salty from the ham, then be careful not to add too much. Add > the apples about five minutes before the sauce is ready.

To serve, remove the hay and scrape away any stalks that have stuck to the ham. Carve it as thinly or thickly as you wish and serve with the sauce.

Grilled gammon steak with celery

Serves 4

I cut two steaks from the Wiltshire joint before I baked it. Alternatively, you could use a couple of gammon steaks.

4 gammon or ham steaks weighing about 150-180g each
Vegetable or corn oil for grilling
1 large head of celery, or 2 small ones with the stringy outer leaves removed
500ml or so vegetable or chicken stock

For the sauce

1 large shallot, peeled, halved and finely chopped
A good knob of butter
2tsp flour
2tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
1tsp Dijon mustard
1tsp grain mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5831147.jpg
Grilled gammon steak with celery (Jason Lowe)

Trim the celery hearts to about 10cm and put the ends to one side. Put the celery hearts in a saucepan with the stock, and simmer for about 20-25 minutes or until tender. Put to one side.

To make the sauce, take one of the trimmed-off ends of celery, peel it then finely chop it to roughly the same size as the shallot. Melt the butter in a small heavy-based saucepan and gently cook the shallot and diced celery for a couple of minutes until it softens.

Add the vinegar and simmer until it's reduced to nothing, then stir in the flour and gradually whisk in about two thirds of the celery hearts, cooking stock and mustards. Simmer very gently for about 15-20 minutes or until the sauce has thickened, then season if necessary. Cover to keep hot.

Heat a ribbed griddle or heavy frying pan, lightly brush the steak with oil and cook on a medium heat for 3-4 minutes on each side, depending on thickness. Reheat the remaining third of the celery hearts, remove from the pan and quarter if large or halve if small. Plate the steaks, transfer the celery to the serving plate and spoon the hot sauce over the celery.

Ham and eggs

Serves 4

I've used pheasant eggs, which are in season until June, or you could use quail or bantam eggs. All are available in the Clarence Court egg range and make simple ham and eggs a tad more interesting.

Enough cooked ham or gammon for 4 (about 250g)
8 pheasant or quail eggs
Butter, for frying the eggs

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Marks used pheasant eggs for his ham and eggs dish (Jason Lowe)

I would make this dish using the leftovers from the hay-baked ham – or you could cook a fresh piece of ham or gammon by baking or simply boiling it. Refrigerate overnight to make carving easier. To serve, thinly slice and arrange on serving plates. Gently melt the butter in a non-stick pan and fry the eggs.

Air-dried ham with sweet and sour onions

Serves 4

A month ago I got sent some air-dried ham from Woodalls in Cumbria. I've got to say it's the best British ham I've yet come across. It made it to our menus the minute I tasted it.

8-12 slices of air-dried ham (smoked or unsmoked)

For the onions

200g button onions or small shallots, peeled
100ml white wine or cider vinegar
1tsp salt
30g granulated sugar
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp freshly ground white pepper

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Air-dried ham with sweet and sour onions (Jason Lowe)

Put the onions in a pan with the vinegar, salt, sugar, olive oil and pepper, then top up with water to cover the onions well. Bring to the boil and simmer gently with a lid on for about 15-20 minutes or until tender. For the last 5 minutes turn the heat up so that the liquid reduces and just coats the onions.

To serve, arrange the ham on one large or four individual serving plates and either scatter the onions over or else serve them separately.

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