Culinaria: JP McMahon’s hay smoked ham

Smoking and baking with hay is beautiful way of injecting the countryside into your kitchen

Smoking with hay or turf has become extremely fashionable in restaurants all over the world. It is hard sometimes to ignore the plethora of smoked objects clinging to the menu: hay smoked chicken, turf smoked salmon, hay smoked aioli, turf smoked beef. As with most things that appear vanguard and new, they usually are not, and neither is this.

Smoking with both hay and turf (both of which are high in tannins) is indeed an ancient process and was originally used to help preserve meat or fish after they had been salted. It is known that the Normans used hay to smoke their hams in the early middle ages.

Even earlier, it was the Romans, educated by the Celts, who salted and smoked pork in order to keep it for up to a year. If not for a decisive battle in and around 300AD, we may be eating Celtic cured sausages as opposed to Italian (but that is mere speculation).

The Irish, probably more Norman and Viking that Celt, have recently taken to making their own cured Italian sausages, such as salami.


Baking a ham in hay is a beautiful way of injecting the countryside into your kitchen. Pick up some hay in a pet shop and half fill an oven tray with it. Place your ham on the hay and cover with clingfilm and then tin foil (this will keep the clingfilm from melting). Bake at 140 degrees Celsius for two to three hours, until tender (depending on size). Remove the tinfoil and clingfilm and turn the oven up to 200 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes.

I don’t usually glaze a hay baked ham, but if you want, remove the skin, score the fat and dress with a little organic honey.

Another way I like to cook ham is to place it in the oven at 70 degrees Celsius and cook it for about 17 hours. This is an extremely long and delicate process, but the ham melts in your mouth.

You won’t be able to carve it into traditional slices because of its soft and succulent quality, but the result is rewarding.