My friend can’t afford any ham without Nitrates. For shame. To be honest I wouldn’t know the difference between ham treated with nitrates, acrylic paint or cyanide. I received a lengthy message asking whether it was privilege to be able to afford to choose to eat ham, free from chemicals such as Nitrates. Parma Ham for example. On the face of it, yes it probably is middle-class of you to pick Parma Ham over Sainsbury’s Own breaded gammon slices. And you can mull that over as you plop your Waitrose bags in the back of the Landie.
I should probably clear up: Nitrates are not particularly good for you. Not, thirty-a-day, hamburger, and couple of pints, bad for you, but Nitrates have been linked to The Big C. However, Nitrates have been used broadly to extend the shelf-life of food and help deli meats retain their distinctive colour for the last couple of centuries.
Mortadella is a good example of a deli meat created using nitrates where the proportions have been regulated by authorities to authenticity standards of the region. No Mortadella ham can have above 5% presence of Sodium or Potassium Nitrates. Nitrates are allowed to exist on the basis that Mortadella must have a shelf life to be a viable product. Oh, and it must be from the Bologna area. Bologna is home to some of the best cured meats in Italy. Famed for its butchers and Tavernas where legs of Prosciutto and ginormous hams hang trussed from the ceiling. Tamburini claims to be the oldest such establishment. A proper deli, you can buy a hunk of cheese or prosciutto and have it vacuum sealed for the two-hour flight back to London. I lived for about a month off the half-kilo of Pancetta Rustica which I crammed into my hand luggage, next to my laptop and emergency banana (always have an emergency banana).
Pancetta is an example of a traditionally cured meat which is made by preserving only with herbs and salt. Cheaper versions may include nitrates, but the original is simply salt cured. Nitrates then, are used in traditional as well as mass-produced deli meat, but they are also a part of the human constitution and are present naturally in leafy greens such as spinach. In other words, you would have to consume an awful lot of processed ham to do yourself any harm.
The question at play here is not really a class or health-food issue. It is a flavour one. Processed meat is cheap, but it also tastes of very little. If ham doused in nitrates was a tradition which led to a better product, then I would probably wolf it down all the same. But it doesn’t, so I don’t. As it stands longer shelf lives are thought to reduce food waste and certainly makes food more affordable, but it would be naïve to suggest that this only happened in the meat industry. I buy ham because I like the taste, so when I do, I buy nice-tasting ham. La fin.
As for class, I can think of nothing more democratising than flavour. It doesn’t take a world-class palette to know that Prosciutto exists in a different dimension to thin-slice anonymous luncheon meats. You don’t need to own a Land Rover to tell the difference. Chances are that if you are defined by the car which you own, then you will probably buy the luncheon meats anyway. Just so, if you are defined by the ham you buy, well then you probably need to get out more.