The first record of cured meat can be traced back to Mesopotamia around 3000 BC.
Meat eaters love their prosciutto, pancetta and salami, but how and when these were developed is a mystery. The first record of cured meat can be traced back to Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. It has been mentioned that sesame oil was used to preserve meat and fish, which were also dried and salted to give them a longer shelf life. These were stored especially for when food was scarce. Salt curing became popular in Greece and The Roman Empire by 200 BC. By the nineteenth century, methods used to preserve meat were further refined.
Since meat is a breeding ground for bacteria, our ancestors used salt to keep meat from spoiling as salt absorbs moisture, which actually takes away the ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive. Besides salting, cold smoking is also used to preserve meat. This process doesn’t use heat at all. The meat is usually cured before being smoked. This adds an interesting flavour and also prevents the growth of bacteria and fungus. When cold smoking meat, the temperature must be maintained below 30°C. Fish begins to cook around this temperature. If too hot, the meat will be cooked instead of being preserved.
The process of curing meat was perfected during the era of Homer, the Greek author and poet, in 850 BC. It was the first time that people used nitrates for curing. The importance of nitrates was clearly established in the 20th century. Nitrates help in preserving the meat’s colour and flavour, and also keeping unwanted bacteria at bay.
The fact that nitrates keep meat red for a longer time was first observed by The Romans. The Greeks taught the Romans salt curing. The nitrate used during salt curing, saltpetre, preserved the pink colour of the meat while it was being cured.
The butchers of the Roman Empire preserved their meats by sprinkling them with salt and then leaving them to dry. All the moisture was absorbed by the salt, drying the meat. More salt was sprinkled once this was done. Then, the meat pieces were put into containers without touching each other. These containers had originally been used to store oil and vinegar. After placing the meat in the containers, it was covered with sweet wine and straw. Finally, the containers were stored in a cool place.
When the meat was to be eaten, it was first boiled in milk and then water. This helped get rid of all the salt. Another method used for preserving meat didn’t require salt. The meat was soaked in honey, put into an air-tight container, and stored in a cool place to be eaten during the winter.
Although those who cured meat in the past didn’t realise the importance of salt or nitrates until much later, they developed a practice that is used all over the world today. France has its charcuterie and Italy has varieties of ham like prosciutto and pancetta. Salami sandwiches have become common and cured meat has made a place on cheese and meat boards. The next time you eat a slice of pepperoni or bacon, you’ll know what makes it so tasty.