Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Making A 15th Century Brigandine

Before starting this post, it is paramount for me to first explain that I am not an armorer and I have only a working knowledge of late-medieval armor; I am therefore not an expert by any means. This was my first foray into crafting armor and I learned a lot along the way. My hope with this article is to share what I learned--after over 200 hours of labor--inasmuch as it is to show off the awesome brigandine I made.

History Of Brigandines

Brigs left to right: 1400-50 at the Met; 1470-80 at the Royal Armouries; 1540-50 at the RA 

"Brigaundiris," "brigaunders," "brigantiens," and "brigandinis" are just four ways John Paston and his associates referred to the same type of upper body armor of the middle- to late- 15th century. A brigandine, within the cultural context of western European history, is a type of late-medieval (15-16th centuries) torso armor characterized by hundreds of overlapping steel plates riveted to an outer material that's backed with canvas, weighing around 20 pounds on average. A brigandine fulfills a similar defensive role as a back and breastplate (cuirass) that many attribute to the men-at-arms of this period. That said, a brig was worn by both "common soldiers" as well as the aristocracy and everyone in between. One major factor for determining the quality of the brigandine--and thus who wore it--was the outer or "covering" material used. In one surviving example at the Metropolitan Museum, velvet was used as the covering fabric; presumably this was owned and worn by someone who was well-off. Other types of material used to cover the brigandine included silk, wool, linen, and leather.

Interior of a brig from 1470-80 in the Royal Armouries

Basic definition aside, the brigandine wasn't a singular type of segmented armor during this period. As has been hotly debated by actual armor experts on numerous forums, the brigandine is often conflated with the contemporary coat-of-plates. A quick comparison of the two would reveal that they are both segmented torso armor, with steel plates riveted to a covering material as well as an inner fabric. The key differences however are the size and number of the plates used. 

Left to right: late-14th early 15th-century coat of plates from the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich; 1470-80 brigandine from the Royal Armouries

A coat-of-plates (or "pair of plates") normally has one large breastplate with numerous smaller plates for the peplum (skirt) and back. As has been suggested by the earlier referenced armor experts, the coat-of-plates may have been the ancestor for the later brigandine (sometimes referred to as a "pair of brigandines"), though surviving documents show that both were being used at the same time and clearly delineated (at least by the late 14th century). It is tricky to say with absolute certainty what a medieval person precisely meant by "brigandine" or "pair of plates"--notably if they were the same definitions we have attributed to them in the 21st century--and perhaps it's altogether irrelevant. We have a tendency in the modern age to categorize everything, but did those categories even exist 500 years ago or exist as we know them today?

Planning The Brigandine

Early Stages: Choosing A Brig

1480 brigandine at the Musee de l'Armee in Paris

As mentioned earlier, brigandines varied widely in quality. The covering material is one major factor for determining the quality of the brig. As my living history portrayal is that of an archer, I was not looking to recreate the all too common tri-riveted Italian brigandine in the Royal Armouries collection. Yes, while archers are shown in the artwork of the period wearing colorful and high-quality brigs, I wanted one that was clearly of a lower status--something far more for the commoner than the well to do. I originally toyed around with the idea of a wool-covered brig, but since a member of my unit already has one, and for the purpose of showing multiple types of brigs to the public, I wanted to try something else. Most of the surviving examples are understandably covered in rich fabrics (those tend to survive in wealthy families' collections), but in my research, I came across what appeared to be a brig of more common origins: the leather-covered "archer's brigandine" in the Musee de l'Armee's collection. I latched onto this as the brigandine I wanted to copy. Now certainly, it's purely speculation that the brig was used by an archer, and some aspects of the brig look like they were altered at a later date (shoulders, neckline, and maybe the peplum), but the general shape and construction largely matched that of a typical brigandine from the late 15th century. With a model in mind to base my brigandine off of, I began to consider the details.

Aside from the covering material, another major factor in the quality of historical brigandines was the steel plates themselves: quantity, thickness, and hardness. In short, brigandines were made lighter or heavier to suit the wearer's desire. Referenced a few times by Matt Easton and Augusto Bront in their recent video on how medieval armor was tested, brigandines were tested (or "proofed") among plate armor for their defensive abilities, notably rated at "half-proof" or "full-proof." While later armor of the 17th century and on was proofed for pistols and even muskets, the two sources identified by Augusto Bront clearly show proofing based on crossbows and bows. While fascinating, I could not find any sources that connect half- or full-proof brigandines with anything measurable (overall weight, plate thickness, number of plates, etc.). I hope I can eventually find such a source, but when building my armor, I was at a loss. In fact, my only source for plate thickness was this wonderful how-to by Craig Nadler, who offered that the 1050 spring steel plates should be .035" thick (~20 gauge), except for the lung plates which should measure in at .050" (~17 gauge). It was a shot in the dark, to an extent, to just trust a secondary source with the plate thicknesses, but since I couldn't find thickness measurements of the plates in the Met, Royal Armouries, Musee de l'Armee, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art's online collections, I decided to trust Nadler. If final weight can be used to suggest the quality of a brig though, vis-a-vis plate density, Nadler's measurements seem to hold up. My final brig weighs 20 pounds which is comparable to those in the museums' collections that offer a weight in the description. This isn't a perfect correlation since materials used (leather is heavier than velvet) will skew the results, but as the extants that are listed with weights are about the same size as mine (just a couple centimeters off), covering material is really the only major variable. Needless to say, I'm pleased with my albeit imperfect data and Nadler's plate thicknesses.

Patterning The Body

Leather pieces cut out from pattern

I really could not have begun my brig if it were not for Craig Nadler's article. It is the comprehensive how-to article on recreating a brigandine. I referenced this constantly during the initial planning and again during construction. If you plan to make your own, definitely read Nadler's article first. That said, since I was going to copy the Musee de l'Armee's leather brig, I couldn't exactly use Nadler's patterns to make mine. So, the first thing I needed was the overall pattern; for that, I used my doublet. Enlarging it by about an inch (if I remember correctly) at each seam, I also widened the armscye, and slightly lengthened the peplums. The peplums also had to be a part of the main body, not separate like they are on a normal doublet. Additionally, analyzing the pictures of the extant, I had to ever-so-slightly move the side seams. Confident that this would work, I cut out and hand sewed a mockup from the linen canvas that would become the inner fabric of the brig, using waxed linen thread and backstiches. Everything looked good at this stage, so I then moved forward with the leather.

For the covering material, as earlier explained, I chose leather. Specifically, I went with 4-5oz vegetable-tanned leather (procured from Tandy Leather). Using the same pattern, I cut out the pieces of leather, though without seam allowances (so about 1/2" less on the sides and shoulders where they become seams). Before sewing, I needed to dye the leather. Based on the extant and the most common colors for common soldiers I noticed in the artwork, I decided on black. While it's challenging to say what color the extant in the Musee de l'Armee actually was, I feel confident that it was probably black. Part of my confidence stems from the knowledge that it's extraordinarily easy to dye veg-tanned leather black using the historical vinegaroon (made and gifted to me by a friend who apparently made way too much). Made by mixing rust with vinegar (here's a modern how-to), the concoction creates a chemical reaction with the leather that dyes it black. Here's a clip I took to show you how quickly and effectively it works.

Once dyed, I submerged each piece in water mixed with baking soda to balance out the acidity/basicity of the leather. The last thing I wanted was for the vinegar-soaked leather to encourage/speed up rust development on the steel plates. After the leather dried, I sewed the pieces together using heavy waxed linen thread and saddle-stitching the seams, butting one piece against the other (which is why I didn't cut for seam allowances for the leather). After trying this on, however, I was worried that the leather might be too thick. Looking back at the original, though, I was still convinced I chose the correct weight, but I didn't like how stiff it was. I then spent a good hour or so rolling the leather "vest" around and making it much more pliable. The end result--a soft and pliable leather body--looked exactly like the extant in the museum.

Body sewn up

The last part of this initial stage was to sew the canvas lining to the leather. The extant has leather piping around most of the raw edges of the leather (neck, armscye, and front opening), so I used the piping seams to attach the canvas to the body. To make the piping, I cut very long 1" wide strips of 4oz veg-tanned leather (two the length of the fronts, two the length of the armscyes, one the length of the neck opening, and two half the length of the bottom), dyed with vinegaroon. To attach them, I first lined up the canvas lining inside the leather body, matching seams and then temporarily fastening them together with binder clips. Starting with the front opening, I placed one of the piping strips along the front, matching right sides together, and clipping the piping in place with the binder clips. I then used waxed linen thread and whip stitched through all three layers (canvas, body, piping) the entire length of the front. Then, I turned the piping strip inside the body, covering the raw edges of the leather and canvas, and whip stitched it down to the canvas. Once I sewed on all the piping strips, the body was complete.

Piping whipped down onto the canvas along the neckline and front

Patterning The Plates

At about the same time as when I started making the body, I ordered the steel sheets and rivets. Following Craig Nadler's advice, I bought a couple 2' X 4' sheets of 20 gauge steel (procured from All Metals Inc.). Purely out of convenience and knowing that I wouldn't be facing actual combat with my brig, I opted to use exclusively 20 gauge steel (no differentiation for lung plates which Nadler specified as being ~17 gauge). For rivets, I ordered 1,600 solid brass rivets with 1/2" posts (procured from Buckle Guy). This was after ordering a couple different sizes and, comparing the head size on the assembled leather body to the pictures from the Musee de l'Armee, I went with the .31" wide rivets.

To pattern the plates, I couldn't use Nadler's patterns. Since I used my own pattern for the body of the brig and the shape of the plates just looked like they were different than those he used, I had to make my own patterns. To be clear, no pictures have ever been taken of the interior of the Musee de l'Armee brig. When I reached out to the curator, I was told that it was too fragile for them to dismount it and photograph it for me. So, relying on the rivet placements, I endeavored to pattern out each plate. Sketching on the paper pattern pieces for the body of the brig, I essentially outlined the rivets in a sort of connect-the-dots fashion (see the picture below with the light blue showing a chest plate and the red showing a random front plate). 

The problem, I quickly came to realize, was that every single plate seemed unique; there's no way I was going to be able to just cut out 200+ same-size/shape rectangles and be done with it. So, after sketching every plate out on the body pattern, I labeled each one (1A for the top chest plate, 1B for the one beneath it, 2A for the plate beside 1A, etc.), all 260 plates. As I sketched out each plate, I also drew circles indicating rivet placements.

After sketching and labeling them on the body patterns, I of course needed to make patterns of the plates themselves. What you can't see from the outside of the brig though is that the plates overlap each other--they're not just butted up against each other. So the pattern for each plate needed to be extended half an inch left or right and half an inch at the top or bottom (see picture below). To figure out which direction each plate had to be extended, I referred to Nadler's article which helped to make sense of the brig interiors that you can see in the various extants. Using the example above, the light blue chest plate only gets extended half an inch to the top, but the red plate would be extended half an inch to the right and half an inch to the top. The reasoning is that the armorer rivets the top chest plate first (1A in my example), works down that row to the waist, and then rivets the next row back, working from the front to the sides and ultimately center back. Everything below the waist (the peplums) get riveted in reverse order (after the entire upper body has been riveted), so starting from the bottom fronts and working up to the waist and back to the center-back. All this to say, I traced each plate pattern from the body onto another sheet of paper, adding the the extra half inch were needed, and then cut out each pattern piece. I then taped each plate pattern to the sheets of steel and cut them out using a bandsaw with a steel-cutting blade (or two, after I snapped the first).

Overlapping plates in the first two rows: from top to bottom and left to right

260 steel plates later, I removed the paper patterns from the steel, carefully marking each plate with permanent marker the designated letter/number and a dot where a rivet should be placed. I then filed down sharp corners and edges, and finally drilled rivet holes using a 3/32" drill bit in a drill press. The last step for the plates before riveting was tinning. Every brig in museum collections showed steel plates that were tinned to resist rust. Deciding at this point to take a sort-of shortcut (also I wasn't about to invest in tin-plating equipment), I reached out to a friend who works in a university science lab, to have him electroplate my steel plates with tin. Despite his excellent and arduous efforts, the plating wasn't perfect and the plates were still rusting in parts. Not wanting to buy more equipment for this project, I called it "good enough" and was ready to begin riveting.

Riveting The Plates

As previously described, the plates are riveted starting at the top front plates (technically the shoulder) and working down to the waist and back to the center back. For my brig, that meant seven vertical rows each side (five on the fronts and two on each side of the back). Once done, a center-back row (special row #8) is riveted down. Then, I worked the peplums, starting at the bottom of the front row and working up and back, finished off with row #8 to cover the center. Still not quite complete, a row of plates also needed to be riveted along the waist (so a horizontal row), starting at the fronts and working to the center back. The final plates to be added were the collar plates. Starting at the front and working back, the plates are riveted down. That's the general gist of how they're riveted, but of course it's not quite so cut-and-dry.

First five rows riveted on

When both rows of front plates (left and right sides) were riveted, I had to also include buckles and straps: seven buckles and seven straps to be precise. Because I wasn't sure if the buckles on the Musee de l'Armee brig were actually from the 15th century, and not added later, I opted for simple squared bronze buckles (procured from Historical Enterprises). I cut out the leather for the buckles and the straps, dyed them, and for the buckle-straps, I sewed them with waxed linen thread. For a little embellishment, I also pressed lines into the edges of the straps. To attach the straps to the brig, I carefully cut a slit in the brig's leather next to where the rivet will be (just one of the rivets that holds the plate in place), slid the strap into that hole, and punched a rivet through all the layers (brig outer, buckle strap, canvas, and plate). You can see how it works in the picture below from the extant. Note, too, how you can make out the outline of the strap under the brig's leather covering. Of interest, you can also see where additional buckles were riveted at one point based on the cuts in the leather body--perhaps doubling the quantity of buckles or, more likely, indicating an older placement that for some reason didn't work out.

I should also mention briefly how I made the rivets. When I placed the plate where it should go (I traced out the plates from the brig body pattern onto the canvas lining), I hammered finishing nails through the holes of the plate, into the canvas and leather body, and into a chunk of scrap wood. After removing the nails, I pushed the rivets through, from the leather (outside) into the plate. With a 1/2" steel plate as my "anvil," I clipped off the excess post of the rivets, leaving maybe 1/4 of post sticking out above the plate, and hammered the post with a ball peen hammer. After much of the body was riveted, it became fairly tricky to rivet some plates, so I created a tool to help. I ground down the head of a 3" bolt so that it was slightly rounded (no sharp edges), threaded a couple of nuts onto it--one high up by the head and one closer to the end--and then clamped the bolt to the vise on an anvil with the head sticking up about an inch. I then tightened the nuts to the vise so that the bolt wouldn't shift left or right on me. The head of the bolt is what I used as the anvil for attaching tricky rivets--mostly in areas where the brig was heavily curving.

First chest plate being placed with nails

Final Adjustments

I seldom complete a project without something potentially disastrous happening. As it turned out, I couldn't put on my brig because the armscyes were too narrow and the whole thing is quite rigid. Basically, I could get one arm in, but not the other. After researching brigs early on, I had concluded that the most common trend I saw in the historical artwork was complete shoulders--only a couple showed buckled-shoulders. That was one of the biggest changes I made from the Musee de l'Armee extant: not using buckled-together shoulders. I was determined that they should be solid. Needless to say, if I wanted to wear my brig, the shoulders needed to be opened up. So I took out my seam ripper and popped open the shoulder seams. I then very arduously stitched piping over the now-exposed shoulder edges (working around the plates which were now at this point permanently riveted on). The last step was to add buckles and straps. Of course my original buckle-supplier was out of stock of the buckles I used for the fronts, but thankfully Tod Cutler had almost the exact same buckles in stock, of which I bought four (procured here at Tod Cutler). Since the buckles and straps get riveted on using the same rivets that hold the plates in place, I had to cut out some rivets using a hacksaw blade and a lot of patience (thankfully I hadn't finished riveting the collar plates yet, so I only needed to cut out four rivets). Eventually, I was able to rivet the shoulder buckles and straps on using the same method I used for the front buckles.

Shoulder straps added

The last bit of work was oiling the leather. While I do not know if this was done historically, I know that not-oiled leather doesn't last very long, especially if it's been beaten up a lot through the riveting process. I used neatsfoot oil--the same as what I use to conditioning my historical shoes--and was glad to see the dust and dryness vanish as it darkened a little. 

Final Thoughts

I learned a lot through this project. Forced to over-analyze the smallest details in countless images of armor has given me a greater appreciation for 15th century armor. But so has hand-hammering 1,600 rivets. One thing I dislike about this brig now that it is complete is that it doesn't have anything close to the wasp-waist that you see on other brigs. I knew that it wasn't going to have it when I first started because the original at the Musee de l'Armee doesn't have it and you really can't make it without detached peplums, but I still just dislike the shape of the waist. I also kind of wish I made the armscye a little bigger to allow for a bit more movement. In all though, it's very wearable and it looks like the original and that's really what I was going for.

I hope you enjoyed this article or at least the pictures of my brigandine. When my medieval unit--the Paston Project--creates a website, I'll link to it here so that, should you want to see this brigandine in person, you can visit us at an event. Please leave a comment or ask a question below! If you are interested in making your own, I'd be happy to offer advice or at least get you in contact with someone who knows more. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 5, 2022

To Make Westphalia Ham

The process of preserving and smoking hams in the 18th century

A couple weeks have passed since my friends and I cut three hams down from the chimney of the recreated tenement house at Historic London Town and Gardens. Following the recipe from three 18th century books on cookery, we explored the historical process of preserving and smoking large cuts of meat. 

Back in October, we collected the meat from a meat-share that we purchased from local Maryland farmer, Mike De Paola (he isn't taking any more orders this year, but still reach out to him if you'd like to buy a part of or an entire hog for next year--this was without any doubt the best pork and ham I have ever eaten). Besides the anticipated freshness, flavor, and bulk-price, what drew us to buying shares of a hog was the desire to smoke part of the meat as an experiment in 18th century foodways. Once we eventually determined on the hams, I dove into researching the history of 18th century hog-preservation.

Westphalia Ham

In both the 18th century recipe books as well as some secondary sources, I kept coming across this term: Westphalia ham. In some recipes, these hams were pickled in a brine (so a water-based curing process). In others, the author recommended rubbing the hams with the salt mixture and letting them dry on a shelf or barrel (or "dry curing"). What both processes agreed on however, was that the cure should be simple (salt, sugar, and saltpeter) and that it must end with smoking the hams. Today, Westphalia hams are still produced and are described by Wikipedia as "ham produced from acorn-fed pigs raised in the forests of Westphalia, Germany. The resulting meat is dry cured and then smoked over a mixture of beechwood and juniper branches." It seems from the 18th century accounts that I've read that what the pigs ate wasn't really what made the ham what it was, but rather, the process of curing and smoking it. At the very least, as Thomas Jefferson recorded in his observations while visiting Germany in 1788, the hog should be small (120-200 lbs) as it "makes the sweetest meat." More than just describing the size, Jefferson helpfully provides an overview of the process of making Westphalia ham while passing through Dusseldorp: 

I observe the hog of this country [Westphalia] of which the celebrated ham is made, is tall, gaunt, and with heavy lop ears. Fatted at a year old, would weigh 100. or 120 ℔. at 2 years old 200 ℔. Their principal food is acorns. The pork fresh sells @ 2½d sterl. the ℔. The ham ready made @ 5½d sterl. the ℔. 106. ℔ of this country is equal to 100. ℔ of Holland. About 4. ℔ of fine Holland salt is put on 100. ℔ of pork. It is smoked in a room which has no chimney. Well informed people here tell me there is no other part of the world where the bacon is smoked. They do not know that we do it.

Jefferson observed that fine Holland salt is "put to" to the pork and then it's smoked. My best guess by "put to" is that the salt was rubbed in as I feel like a brine requires somewhat different language. I also note that sugar and saltpeter--two commonly cited ingredients in ham making--are absent in his description. What's more, he doesn't describe the time it takes to cure the ham. By all accounts, the meat needs to cure for around a month or more before smoking it. In all, I think it's safe to assume that Jefferson was only detailing the parts of the process that were unique (i.e. "fine Holland salt" and "smoked in a room which has no chimney") as opposed to a step-by-step procedure. By Jefferson's description, Westphalia ham is produced from small, one-year old hogs that were first dry cured, and then smoked.

"They do not know that we do it"

When Jefferson visited Dusseldorp in 1788, he made a minor comment to the fact that Virginia was also fairly well known for producing a similar quality ham. Reinforcing his defense of his homeland's hams are comments from two English travelers to Virginia, one in the late 17th century and another in the early 18th. Reverend John Clayton wrote in 1688 that Virginia's hams were "as good as any Westphalia, certainly far exceeding our English.” Half a century later, in 1724, traveler Hugh Jones wrote that Virginia "pork is famous, whole Virginia shoats [young pigs] being frequently barbecued in England; their bacon is excellent, their hams being scarce to be distinguished from those of Westphalia" (primary source quotes from this article: "Setting the table for Virginia ham"). So Virginia really was producing comparable--if not better--hams than those known in Europe as being of the highest quality.

Since their arrival in North America in the 17th century, English settlers participated in a tradition of salting and smoking meats. Salting meat in general is a practice of preservation that most human societies practiced for millennia, but what's interesting about the English custom of salting and smoking is that, by the 17th century, it was done not just to preserve the meat, but also because they enjoyed the flavor. Certainly this applied to other cultures, too but for the scope of my research and application of the process, I focused on that of England.

When you dive into 18th century recipe books and thumb through the section on food preservation, you'll notice that there are myriad recipes for salting various cuts of meat, but smoking the meat is only thrown in at the end of certain recipes (i.e. Westphalia ham) where smoke is part of the flavor profile. Salting is all that's required to preserve meat; smoking the meat afterward is just an additional and optional step in the process (though there certainly is some benefit of smoke as a preservative). Take for example The Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769. The author, Elizabeth Raffald lists the following recipes in the section on "Pickling, Potting, and Collaring" (thus a section on food preservation): "To pot beef... To pot ox cheek... To collar a breast of veal... To collar a Calf's-Head... To souse Tripe... To salt Hams... To smoke Hams... To salt Chops... To salt Bacon... To salt Tongues...To pickle Pork" (emphasis added by me). The only mention of smoking is for hams. At the end of each recipe for all of the salted meats is the phrase "hang them up" or "hang them to dry in a dry place." It's not a large assumption to make, therefore, that smoking is unnecessary to the preservation of the already-salted meat; that it was done at this point in history to add flavor.

Another source that reinforces this idea while also explicitly providing a recipe for Westphalia ham is from Sarah Harrison's The House-keeper's Pocket-book, published in 1760. In the section entitled "Directions for Drying, Salting, Collaring, Potting, and Pickling Flesh and Fish after the most elegant Manner," Harrison provides the following recipes: "To dry a Leg of Mutton like Ham... To machinate Tongues... To salt Hams and Tongues... To salt Hams of Bacon... To make Brawn... To salt Ham... To make a Ham... To make Westphalia Ham." Harrison offers no recipes for smoking as a form of preservation in the section on preserving food. In fact, the only mention of smoking in any of the recipes is in that "To make Westphalia Ham." If you follow her recipe to "salt Ham" or the one after that "To make a Ham," then the last thing you should do is "dry it for your Use" or "send it to be dried" respectively. To make Westphalia ham, Harrison writes that, after salting the ham for three weeks, you should "Dry it in a Chimney where you burn Wood or Turf." Smoking was clearly not a method of food preservation in England by the 18th century.

Adding smoke to meat was a method of flavoring it and is argued by other food historians. In her article "MECHANICS AND FUNCTIONS OF A SMOKE HOUSE: A prepatory report for running the John Dickinson Smoke House," author and historian Judith Quinn draws upon late 18th and early 19th century sources when she writes that:

Recommended fuels for the fire include; green hickory, hickory bark, oak, apple, cherry, and maple woods, sassafras, com cobs, sawdust (preferably oak) and juniper berries, tanner's bark, and "horselitter" (straw). Recipes advised against using ash, locust, and pine wood, as well as paper. The most popular fuel by far was hickory wood (in chips or kindling form). Sawdust and straw were more often suggested in English recipes where smoking took place in chimneys, not in a smoke house. Each fire was built according to the taste of the cook and his/her conviction ·of having found the "sweetest smoke". 

Interestingly, the description "sweetest smoke" comes from a 1799 diary written by John Beale Bordley of Philadelphia. He described how "Green hiccory gives the sweetest and best smoke: superior to dry hiccory or locust, ash, oak; and to corn stalks." 

Most 18th century recipes I came across, however, don't offer much for what to use in smoking the meat. Harrison wrote that you should "Dry it in a Chimney where you burn Wood or Turf." I'm not sure I'd use peat for smoking hams, but maybe it does offer a decent flavor. In Charles Carter's The London and Country Cook published in 1749, the author merely offers that you should "hang them up high in a chimney to smoke." Raffald offers the most details on engineering the smoke when she wrote that one should "make a Fire of Oak Shavings, and lay over it Horse Litter [straw], and one Pound of Juniper Berries." Her use of juniper berries coincides with the modern definition of Westphalia ham--clearly it's been part of the process for at least 270 years. So while smoking was done to add flavor to already-preserved meat, cooks were only just beginning to experiment with wood types by the late 18th century to alter the flavor the smoked meat.

One fascinating tidbit of history I discovered while researching 18th century salted and smoked hams was the relationship between smoking meats and American architecture. While salting preserved the meats, smoking imparted flavor. This was so desired that even the rich in colonial America wanted access to a steady source of smoked meat. Judith Quinn writes in her article that

the widespread use of the smoke house is an American phenomenon. In the many primary sources examined on the subject, of those published in England, only one made any mention of using a smoke house. The common English advice was to smoke meat in a chimney. The concept of a smoke house, and even its structural form may well have emigrated from Europe, but the realization of the smoke house as an integral element of the kitchen yard (both rural and urban) was a purely American adaptation.

Anyone who has ever visited places like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon has surely seen those small outhouse-like buildings and perhaps mistook the buildings to be the elite colonists' privies, separate from the mansion. Smoke houses were built by the elite and less well off alike to produce the smoked meats that visitors extolled. In his article "Setting the table for Virginia ham," author Mark St. John Erickson writes: 

Embraced first by the trend-setting chefs of the French court — then the exiled household of King Charles II upon its return to England — salted meat became notoriously stylish in the late-1600s because of its renown as a favorite among the ancient Romans... And when the English gentry began consuming salted pork — especially hams — in a self-conscious display of their command of the latest gastronomic theories and fashion, the planters of Virginia joined them, adding the attraction of the chic to a meat that had long occupied a privileged place at their dinner tables.

What started off as a revival in the consumption of salted meat among the elite, ended with a refinement of the meat product. Adding smoke to the salted meat imparted a desired flavor that suited the refined palate. Erickson writes that "As early as 1670, the Chesapeake gentry began erecting small structures devoted to smoking meat alongside their country manors and townhouses... soon, nearly every person of means had their own." By the time of the American Revolution, smoked meats--with ham at the forefront--helped to inspire one small aspect of American architecture and preserve a tasty aspect of Chesapeake foodways for future generations to still enjoy.

The Process

There were two methods to prepare hams in the 18th century: the dry cure and the brine. What appeared to me to be perhaps the most common method--and one I was already a bit familiar with--was the dry cure, so I used that when making the hams. Unsurprisingly, all the recipes that offered a dry cure for salting hams agreed on one ingredient: salt. That said, most specify some variation of a "bay salt" or salt produced by evaporating water from sea salt. More particularly, John Bordley explains that "Salt is  produced, generally, by evaporating sea water: and this is by means of the sun and wind, or by boiling the water. The method by sun and wind is slow and regular; which produces bay-salt, (on the fides of  bays or ponds) and... That by fire is quick, and gives blown-salt." The best salt for preserving food, Bordley argues is salt that has been sun-evaporated as they did in Spain and Portugal in the 18th century. Bordley claims that the "spirit" of the salt (the footnote defines this as "the nature of both the vitriolic and the nitrous acid") is lost by the quick evaporation with fire, but retained when slowly evaporated with the sun. He confirms that "This spirit of the salt is essential for keeping provisions; and when extracted and applied to pickle, gives an agreeable flavor: so that bay-salt, both as it has less of the bad substances, and more of the spirit of  the salt, which is an essential of  it, is preferable in its qualities to blown or boiled salt; besides its greater weight in the bushel." By 21st century contexts, I interpreted Bordley's bay salt as being equivalent to kosher salt today.

After choosing kosher salt, I opted to throw brown sugar into the dry cure mix based on Charles Carter's recipe. Sarah Harrison also called for sugar, but unlike Carter, did not specify "brown" sugar, but rather "the coarsest Sugar you can get" which I suppose should be interpreted as unrefined, and thus brown sugar. In modern dry curing, sugar is added to cut some of the saltiness of the finished product and, according to Judith Quinn, "it made the meat tender retarding the hardening qualities of the salt, while giving the meat a mellowness and richness." While I did not come across molasses being used in the dry cure, Quinn does mention in her article seeing references to it being used.

The final ingredient in my dry cure was saltpeter. While not every single recipe for dry curing meat called for it, almost all of them did. When dry curing meats today, it's still recommended that some form of nitrate be added to the meat to further prevent the bacteria which causes botulism. It's here that I did a little research into modern dry-curing to insure that I had the correct ratio of saltpeter to salt as avoiding botulism was a little more important to me than following the historical recipes to the letter. That said, I found the recipes comparable if not perhaps a little more saltpeter-heavy. In modern recipes, cooks use around half an ounce of saltpeter per pound of salt used (plus around half a pound of brown sugar). In addition to preventing the growth of botulism-causing bacteria, saltpeter helps to preserve the redness of the meat, while an exclusively-salt cure would simply turn the meat an unappealing gray. Fortunately, I have a friend who teaches at a local university who had some saltpeter to spare. If you don't have such a connection, you can find saltpeter on Amazon. In all, I mixed eight pounds of kosher salt, four pounds of brown sugar, and four ounces of saltpeter to create my dry cure.

The first real step, after simply mixing the three ingredients together, was preparing the hams and the barrel. Thanks to a friend of mine who lent me a barrel for our ham-curing, I obtained a ten-gallon wood barrel that was coated with pine pitch (the pitch is irrelevant for the curing process but I thought I'd still mention it). The first thing I had to do was break open one end of the barrel for the top access and then drill a couple of drainage holes in the bottom. Once done, I cleaned the barrel with soap and water and dried it out. For the hams, I just pat-dried them and then rubbed a fair coating of the cure mix into them. Where the meat had little cuts in it from the butchering or a little space between the meat and bone, I made sure to stuff those little cavities with the cure. Once coated, I dropped each ham into the barrel, first with a layer of just kosher salt on the bottom of the barrel, then the first cure-coated ham, then a layer of salt, then a ham, salt, ham, and yet again, more salt. The added layers of kosher salt between hams seemed to just make sense to me, having seen how regular salted pork is made, but none of the recipe books suggested that step. I did this out of an abundance of caution, but was perhaps not necessary.

I then stored the barrel in my pantry which is a separate room off of my kitchen and which I can keep closed with a door. The room is unheated and, even here in Maryland, I find that the pantry can get down into the 40-degree range. This is vital for the preservation process because while the meat is beginning to dry out, it still retains a lot of moisture--the salt that's freshly rubbed into the ham has only just started to work on the meat. In the first couple weeks, bacteria can still spoil the meat, so it really must be kept in an area that's consistently below 50. For some, that could be a pantry, basement, or garage, for others that could be a curing chamber. If you have access to a wine cooler fridge, those would work very well since they operate in the 45-55 degree range.

For the first two weeks, I would take the hams out every three days, brush off any salt on the hams, rub fresh cure into them, and restack them in the barrel but in a different order and upside down (to insure even "drainage"). I also had to empty the cookie sheet I left under the barrel which collected the ham-juices. After the first two weeks, I just left the hams to sit in the barrel, checking them only twice in the remaining two weeks (they cured for a total of four weeks), applying a fresh coating of cure and layers of salt each time. 

At this point, the recipe books suggest I now had salted hams. If I wanted to keep salted hams in my pantry through the summer, each book recommends that I then hang the hams to dry. This would be critical in the Chesapeake area in the 18th century since of course refrigeration did not yet exist and fresh meat spoiled quickly. Quoting a "French visitor's" account of Virginia's foods, author and food historian James E. McWilliams writes in his 2005 book A Revolution In Eating: How The Quest For Food Shaped America, "The summer heat restricts them to this diet [of salted meat], for fresh killed meat must be consumed within twenty-four hours else it will spoil" (126). Salted meats were often boiled a couple of times--each time with fresh water--to flush out the excess salt and then served as-is with perhaps a condiment, or sometimes fried or even incorporated into another dish (i.e. a soup, porridge, pie, etc.).

Since, however, this entire culinary experiment was conceived of because of our desire to smoke the meat, the last step was necessary for us, plus to truly make a Westphalia ham, the meat needed to be smoked. In the three recipes I drew upon, they all reference hanging the hams in a chimney (particularly one that's just normally used for heat and cooking--not a separate structure). Interestingly, in the 17th/18th century farmhouse in Brockley, UK, an entire chamber was built around the chimney on the second floor--a sort of U-shaped closet surrounding the chimney, but instead of shelves or clothing racks, there were pegs that protruded from the walls for hanging meat from. The farmer would hang meats from the pegs and then remove a panel from the side of the chimney, allowing smoke to fill the second-floor curing-chamber. The benefit of this curing chamber is that the meat would not be exposed to the heat from the fire on the first floor at all, but would still receive the smoke from it, allowing the farmer to make as hot a fire as they needed for warmth and/or cooking. Needless to say, it seemed common for English cooks to smoke meats in their chimney, either in a specially-built curing-chamber on the second floor, or hanging from a horizontal pole high up in the chimney. Fortunately for me, Historic London Town and Gardens near Annapolis, MD has a reproduction tenement house sporting a chimney with a smoking-rod eight feet above the ground and they were excited to host my friends and I for a weekend of ham-smoking.

The process of smoking ham in the chimney is straightforward. Take the hams out of the barrel, wipe off the salt with a cloth, and then truss them with some twine (or in my case, hand them over to your friend who portrays a sailor and understands ropes and knots). Finally, hang the hams from the rod in the chimney at least three feet above a very low fire--well enough above it that they will not be cooked. There the hams rested from noon on Friday until noon or so on Sunday while we kept a low/medium fire going all weekend. London Town provided us with maple wood which we also supplemented with hickory chunks. On Sunday, we cut down the hams and wrapped them in linen. In total, they smoked for two days. In the recipe books, I've seen two to three days as a minimum smoke-time, but in Quinn's article, she's seen as long as six weeks. In modern smoking, the hams would have been done after about eight hours. The problem with smoking for an extended period of time (more than a few days), is that smoke is carcinogenic--the more the meat is exposed to smoke, the greater the risk to the consumer. We opted for two days because it met the minimum requirement for the 18th century and it's well within the safety limits, vis-à-vis carcinogens. One other note I found interesting in Quinn's article was that she writes that, while smoking meat, the fire should be left to die out for the night--that smoking does not occur at night. 

The Result

After letting my ham sit around for one week, I finally got around to trying slicing it open for myself. I think what surprised me the most was how similar the flavor and texture of Westphalia ham is to a good prosciutto di parma. It's fairly salty (but not nearly unbearable) with a subtle smokiness while also still retaining a gorgeous red color. As a part-Italian who grew up eating prosciutto, the connection was immediate for me, as it was to my non-reenacting friends who commented the same. Having following the recipes to the letter, I feel confident in arguing that 18th century Westphalia ham (and Virginia ham by extension) would have tasted like a modern prosciutto.

If this article inspired you to make your own salted and smoked meat, let me know! Also, please don't hold me liable if you get botulism. I am only writing about my experiment and the history surrounding it, and am in no way an actual expert with years of experience curing meat. Consume traditionally-cured meat at your own risk!