A brief history of the world's oldest ham and the latest culinary trends in pastoral England.
Wandering through the nearly 250-year-old Oxford Covered Market, with its pink painted ceiling and cast-iron lamps, I didn't expect to be mesmerized by a piece of porcine history. But now I can't stop staring.
Suspended by a thin wire and housed in a polished glass terrarium, the little black nubbin is the prized possession of butcher M. Feller Sons and Daughter. Imported from Chicago in 1892, the ham owes its longevity to being cured in borax. The butchers think it might still be edible, but no one is willing to give it a taste. It's one of very few inedible things in this venerable market.
Over at Brown's Café, patrons line up for the all-day full English breakfast. At butcher David John's stall, whole pheasants, partridges and pigeons are displayed like fleshy gems beside a glistening platter of venison kidneys. The selection isn't surprising when you consider the place started out as a game butchery back in the 1800s.
I stop to admire the display case at The Oxford Cheese Company: Isle of Mull Cheddar, Cornish Yarg, Red Leicester and, of course, Oxford Blue. "Have a taste," says the cheesemonger, handing me a slice, "it's like a blend of Camembert and Stilton." I can't resist.
This is why I've come to Oxfordshire, after all: To get a taste of traditional English cooking at its source. Twenty years ago, British cooking was typically served up as a punch line. But then a group of dedicated chefs started to revive old recipes, adapting and evolving them using quality seasonal ingredients. Today, traditional English food is recognized as some of the world's finest and the farms and pastures around this famed university are among the U.K.'s best.