Cold turkey

Food - Bee Wilson on the wonders of modern refrigeration

People sometimes say, in the course of those slightly dull interactions that make up most modern social commerce, that they eat less meat in summer. It seems too hot, they say, for roasting chickens or joints of pork. No one wants to be stuck inside sweating over a stewpot when they could be stuck inside sweating over sport on TV instead.

Meat, they say, seems less digestible in the hotter months. Cold salmon and salad are much more appealing. They may even express anxiety about salmonella in chicken or listeria in pate. What they will never say, though, is that they eat less meat in the summer because they fear the flesh will have rotted or putrefied in the heat, or because they have no way of keeping it cold. Their forebears, however, would surely have spoken of little else. Refrigeration is now so taken for granted, we barely even remember what it protects us from.

In 1861, Mrs Beeton advised: "During the sultry summer months, it is difficult to procure meat that is not either tough or tainted. It should, therefore, be well examined when it comes in, and if flies have touched it, the part must be cut off, and the remainder well washed." She recommended keeping meat and poultry in "a well-ventilated larder, dry and shady". Until the latter half of the 20th century, this would still have been the commonest way of looking after raw meat. My paternal grandmother used to keep her joints of beef in the larder in a "meat safe", a flimsy contraption made out of meshing, barely more protective than a pair of stockings, though at least it kept out the flies.

Given the limitations of such methods, it is not surprising that our ancestors should have looked around for other means of keeping meat edible. They dried it, they salted it, they painted it with honey to keep the air out. They smoked it and pickled it and, from the early 19th century, they canned it. The story of meat preservation is told entertainingly in Sue Shephard's Pickled, Potted and Canned, now out in paperback (Headline, £7.99). Compared with the unsubtle, cure-all approach of the modern chill cabinet, previous techniques for conserving meats seem wonderfully ingenious.

Long, long ago, cooks worked out that the sun could be used to delay as well as speed up the atrophy of food. As early as 12,000BC, Egyptian tribespeople dried poultry and fish in the desert heat. Bronze Age Scotsmen dried hunks of deer meat between two slabs of wood. The Afghans learnt how to dessicate whole carcasses of sheep in the sun. Pemmican was a more elaborate version of dried meat, made for hundreds of years by Native Americans. They would dry strips of game over a fire or in the wind, shred it and mix it with bear grease and wild cherries or cranberries. Pemmican later became the favourite portable snack of the North American frontiersman.

Drying meat is one thing. But the real creativity began when salt was used, too, making way for hams, bacons, pastramis, salamis and, later, corned beef (the "corn" in corned beef refers to crystals of salt). Parma ham is simultaneously dried and salted in a delicate process, with a gestation period as long as that of a human baby. The Spanish jamon Serrano is traditionally preserved in huge joints in sacks filled with crystalline salt. In order to compress the ham, Shephard writes, "friends and relatives visiting the house are expected to pop down to the basement and do a bit of jumping on the sack of meat".

The remarkable thing is not just that this energetic salting and jumping should have worked, extending the life of raw Iberian pork exponentially, but that the ham should end up tasting so delicious. Shephard argues that the "most valued aspect of preserved food is not that it feeds us in hard times, allows us to travel and prevents waste, but that it gives us pleasure". How lucky we are, in this refrigerated epoch, to be able to make such a judgement. Eating shrink-wrapped bresaola instead of shrink-wrapped fresh beef is the sort of choice we can make on a whim, fearless of flies or taint. But perhaps we retain a vestigial sense that fresh meat is dangerous in the heat, because somehow, preserved meats - sweet pink hams, smoked turkey, marbled slices of salami - never taste so good as on a picnic in July, with lots of ripe tomatoes to hand.

Now that we double-preserve our foods, refrigerating and date-stamping what has already been cured and smoked, we face the opposite problem to the one Mrs Beeton wrote about. During the sultry summer months, it is strangely difficult to procure meat that has not been refrigerated to the point of extinction. The ham in commercial ham sandwiches is now almost always too cold, so that all you can really taste is the preservative punch of the salt.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?