Carmarthen ham is one of the most feted, not to mention unique, Welsh foods. Jenny White met its maker, Chris Rees.
For a cottage industry, Chris and Ann Rees are very productive – they cure roughly 1000 hams a year. Their produce pops up on the menus of some of the UK’s leading restaurants but they also do a roaring trade via mail order as well as selling the ham from their market stall, Albert Rees Ltd, on Carmarthen market. You can also catch them at Pembroke Dock market every Friday.
Carmarthen ham is unique, and soon it will be protected, because Chris and Ann are in the process of applying for PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status. Their family recipe for making the ham, which tastes similar to Parma ham, is a closely guarded secret but the basic process involves salt curing and air drying the hams for between nine months and a year. The curing is done in a specially converted building at their home, where Chris estimates he currently has 300 hams at varying stages of the curing process.
His is a very hands-on job. He buys large legs from British pigs (they are stamped to confirm their origin) and begins by trimming them to remove excess meat including a portion of belly that he uses in sausages. He then massages the legs with saltpetre and a secret ingredient, to draw out the blood and moisture.
He repeats this process the following day and on the third day he begins rubbing the legs with salt. This is done intensively for a week and then on a weekly basis thereafter. The massaging has to be done firmly to help push out the blood and juices.
“You need to get all of that out; if there’s any blood in it won’t cure – it will go rotten,” he explains.
The legs used for Carmarthen ham are cut in a special way, to include the hip bone, making them longer than a leg of gammon. Each individual ham is labelled to record the date it began curing, and Chris gauges by feel when each ham is ready to be cut. Typically the meat is sold in fine, pre-packed slices, although the occasional customer will buy a whole leg.
Carmarthen ham is by no means the only home-produced product to be sold by Chris and Ann. They also sell their own bacon, faggots, brawn, brisket and a variety of home cooked meats. Chris’ family have had a stall on Carmarthen market for five generations, but it was his father Albert who perfected the recipe for Carmarthen ham in the 1960s, in response to a request from a customer.
“Mr Ken Kaminski, who owned the Royal Ivy Bush in Carmarthen, asked my dad to mature a ham longer than what he normally did,” says Chris. “He used to cure it and serve it fresher – and by fresher I mean it would be hanging for a month and then he’d be slicing it. People would fry it or they’d buy a piece and boil it. But then, because of Ken Kaminski’s request, my dad matured a ham for 6 months. It was nearly right but needed more maturing, and in the end he discovered that nine months to a year was the right length of time.”
The result has become a Welsh delicacy, scooping various taste awards and appearing in restaurants in salads, wrapped round asparagus, served with melon and in countless other guises. Every slice sold can be traced back to Chris and Ann’s home, where the hams are lovingly tended each day.
“It’s a full time job – I call them my babies,” he says. “If we go away on holiday the first thing I do when I come back is go and check on them!”