I’ve been racking my brains but I can’t for the life of me remember which murder mystery it was that I read where the victim’s last meal had been Suffolk Black Ham.
It’s hardly the sort of thing a ham producer would use as PR material, but the point was that the killer was unmasked because the victim, a humble maidservant or some such, couldn’t possibly have bought the ham herself because it was such a high-end product.
And you don’t get much posher than a Royal Warrant, which for those unfamiliar with the term is a much coveted mark of recognition granted by a senior member of the British Royal family to tradesmen who are regular suppliers to the Royal household.
The late Queen Mother granted one such to Emmett’s of Peasenhall, the Suffolk company which makes the Black Ham. An old family firm dating back to 1820, Emmett’s is now owned and run by Mark Thomas, who since 2000 has transformed the business from a village store selling everything from single cigarettes to men’s underwear (and ham) to a very upmarket and well-stocked deli where the famous ham, still made on the premises, takes pride of place.
“When I started you couldn’t see through the windows from inside or out,” says Mark. “The shop was crammed with dog food, cat food, 20 different sorts of washing powder, tampons, you name it, we had it. I felt that if the business was going to survive and prosper and provide a living for myself and my family, something had to change.” That meant, he says, going backwards to go forwards: learning the art of curing and smoking from a standing start and then expanding the range.
He kept the old shop fittings but it’s now an airy and welcoming space with enticing displays of everything porcine: Mark’s ham and bacon, of course, but also Spanish charcuterie. Then there’s wine, fruit and vegetables, olives and cheeses, jams and chutneys and an entire counter dedicated to posh chocolate. There’s a cafe, too, where you can sample Mark’s wares with a slap-up breakfast and excellent coffee or a lunchtime platter of meats, cheeses and salads, washed down with a glass or two of wine.
But the really good stuff, to my mind, is tucked away in the back garden. That’s where Mark and his helpers salt, marinade and/or smoke the numerous hams they sell worldwide. It’s a tiny space for an expanding business but they somehow manage to produce 1500 hams a year, plus bacon, pork ribs and whatever new products Mark’s fertile mind thinks up.
In addition to the Black Ham and bacon, which is cured for six weeks in a bath of local black porter beer, molasses and brown sugar and then smoked, there’s a traditional mild cured ham and others flavoured with, variously, orange, lime, fennel seeds, peppercorns, Earl Grey tea or root ginger. He even makes one smothered in flowers which is apparently a big hit on Valentine’s Day. It certainly beats a bunch of flowers from a garage forecourt.
The free range pork he uses comes from nearby Blythburgh, so Mark’s hams should, rightly, have Suffolk running through them like a stick of rock. Ok, that’s a rather weird image but you know what I mean. This is proper, locally-sourced food. Mark featured as one of Rick Stein’s local food heroes and Emmett’s has become a regular stopping-off place for TV food shows.
“The flavours I use go back to what I was fed as a child,” says Mark. His father used to own the Culpeper herb and spice company and Mark has worked in food retail all his life, in the UK and Canada, Australia, Fiji and Japan. “Customers will come back if your food has flavour. Our Black Ham is our most expensive ham. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea but the Queen Mother liked it, it’s in Delia Smith’s books, Rick Stein came here, so it has its own mystique.”
I sampled the orange, apricot and prune flavoured ham and of course the Black Ham. The first was mild, juicy and lightly perfumed with orange and is said to be a favourite at children’s birthday parties. I have to put my hands up here, though, and say that in spite of its Royal antecedents and worldwide popularity, I’m not a huge fan of the pungent, intensely-flavoured Black Ham. It’s a bit too in-your-face for me.
I haven’t tried the whole Emmett’s range but my current favourite is the peppered ham. The taste of the meat sings through, nicely offset by the warmth and bite of black peppercorns. I’ve got my eye on one of Mark’s pork ribs flavoured with fennel seed, too, unless I can persuade him to divulge the recipe for me to try at home (big hint there, Mark).
The Queen Mother’s Royal Warrant expired five years after her death in 2002 but Mark is rather hoping that younger members of the royal family will pick up the baton. In the meantime, he is happy to sell to less exalted clients and as my invitation to spend the summer at Sandringham has unaccountably got lost in the post, that’s probably the closest I’ll get to dining royally.