Who, what, why: What happens if you eat 112-year-old ham?

Ham

A ham in the US said to be the oldest in the world has celebrated its 112th birthday. Can it really be edible after all this time, asks Tom de Castella.

It was first cured by the Gwaltney meat company in 1902, forgotten about at the back of a storage room, and eventually donated to the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia. Today it looks like a piece of old leather. A special case protects it from bugs and mould, and it is billed the world's oldest edible cured ham. "It would be dry, dry tasting, but it's not molded," curator Tracey Neikirk told the Wall Street Journal.

The answer

  • It might not be dangerous, but the ham would not taste pleasant
  • It would be extremely dry and have a rancid flavour

Dry curing - salting the meat and draining the blood - allows ham to last and develop a richer flavour. But most hams are only aged for a year or two. Not 112. "After such a long time and without knowing how the ham was processed it's difficult to know whether it would be safe," a Food Standards Agency spokesman says. To most people "edible" means more than the ability to eat something without it killing you. "Jamon iberico of four to five years is amazing," says Jose Pizarro, owner of Pizarro, a Spanish restaurant in London." The oldest edible ham he's heard of is eight years old. After that the fat starts to oxidise and the flavour disappears from the meat. A rancid taste develops as the yellow fat diffuses, and as the decades pass it will become as hard as a stone and incredibly ugly, he says.

And then there's the question of whether the Virginia museum's really is the oldest. In 1993, Michael Feller, a butcher in Oxford, bought a ham at auction that was 101 years old. It looked "rather yukky" but was edible, although he wasn't going to cut into it. Today it hangs in the shop window, unnibbled at the ripe old age of 122. Food writer Jay Rayner is unmoved by the battle for the title of oldest ham. "I'd be suspicious of anyone getting excited about the former back end of a pig that's been hanging around for 112 years." Wine and spirits offer a better bet. He remembers drinking a "rather lovely" 1865 armagnac. It had aged well - "deep and toasty" - but the real attraction was not its flavour, he concedes. It was "that link with antiquity". Which perhaps explains the birthday party for a shrivelled up piece of pork.

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