The Chinese Sleeping Beauty: analyzing the best preserved mummy ever discovered, scientists know what she ate hours before her death

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Photo Credit: Flazaza CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1971, a group of construction workers began digging on the slopes of a hill named Mawangdui, near the Chinese city of Changsha. Since the workers were about to construct a spacious air raid shelter for a nearby hospital, they were digging deep into the hill. Before 1971, the Mawangdui hill was never considered a place worth the attention of archaeologists. However, this changed when the workers stumbled upon what appeared to be a tomb hidden beneath many layers of soil and stone. The construction of the air-raid shelter was canceled and, several months after the workers’ accidental discovery, a group of international archaeologists began excavating the site.

The tomb turned out to be so massive that the excavation process lasted for nearly a year, and the archaeologists needed help from as many as 1,500 volunteers, mostly local high-school students. Their painstaking work paid off because they discovered the majestic ancient tomb of Li Chang, the Marquis of Dai, who governed the province approximately 2,200 years ago, during the rule of the Han dynasty. The tomb contained as many as 1,000 precious artifacts, including golden and silver figurines of musicians, mourners, and animals, intricately crafted household items, meticulously designed jewelry, and a whole collection of clothes made from fine ancient silk.

However, the value of these items was immediately topped by the discovery of the mummy of Xin Zhui, the wife of Li Chang and the Marquise of Dai. The mummy, which is nowadays known as Lady Dai, the Diva Mummy, and the Chinese Sleeping Beauty, was found wrapped in 20 layers of silk and sealed within four elaborate coffins enclosed in one another. The outermost coffin was painted black to emphasize death and the passing of the deceased into the underworld. It was also adorned with feathers of various birds because the ancient Chinese believed that the souls of the dead have to grow feathers and wings before being able to become immortal in the afterlife. The inner coffins depict Lady Dai alongside various mysterious landscapes of the underworld.

The archaeologists were stunned by the pristine condition of the mummy. Well-preserved mummies had been discovered before the discovery of Lady Dai, but her condition was unprecedented. Her hair was intact and her skin was soft and moist, showing virtually no signs of decomposition. Furthermore, her muscles were in such good condition that her limbs were actually bendable after she was sealed in an underground tomb for more than two millennia. Researchers concluded that she was most likely immersed in some kind of an unidentifiable acidic liquid which completely prevented decomposition.

An autopsy of Lady Dai was performed in December of 1972. It revealed that she died in her 50s, most likely of a heart attack that resulted from poor health. According to historians, Xin Zhui was an esteemed noblewoman who lived a lavish life of privilege and luxury. She was extremely fond of music and had a whole troop of musician-servants who performed for her whenever she pleased. She was most likely a skilled musician herself, a player of the quin, an ancient Chinese seven-string instrument which has been associated with wisdom, intellect, and prosperity. Also, since she was the wife of the Marquis, she was able to enjoy various kinds of food which were unavailable to the common people of the time, such as different kinds of shellfish, venison, mutton, and foreign fruit.

 The autopsy also revealed that Lady Dai’s blood was type A and that she most likely suffered from diabetes. Despite her ailments, she outlived her husband and likely even her son: both of them were found buried in the same tomb alongside her, but their remains had decomposed over time.

Also, the researchers who performed the autopsy discovered melon seeds in Lady Dai’s stomach and concluded that she ate a melon just two hours before death.

While eating it, she was most likely unaware that her death was imminent. Also, she was unaware that curious scientists would probe her stomach 2,000 years in the future. Nowadays, the mummy of Lady Dai and most of the artifacts recovered from her tomb can be seen at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

 Domagoj Valjak

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North of Munich, the oldest continuously operated brewery, founded by monks, is nearing its 1,000th birthday

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If you want to talk the history of beer over a pint, what better place than the world’s oldest continuously operating brewery? Forty miles due north of Munich, braumeisters at the Weihenstephan Abbey have been boiling hops for nearly 1,000 years.

And the seeds of beer history were planted even earlier. In the year 725, Saint Korbinian, along with 12 traveling companions, founded a Benedictine monastery on Nährberg Hill in Weihenstephan, in an area now called Freising. By the year 768, a hops garden was established on the grounds. Records show that farmers were obligated to pay a 10 percent tithe to the monastery for the privilege of growing hops on the land.

In the year 955, the Weihenstephan monastery was destroyed for the first but not the last time when Hungarians plundered the site, forcing the monks to reconstruct.

In 1040, brewing officially began when Abbott Arnold obtained a license from the city of Freising to brew and sell beer.

In its first 400 years, the Weihenstephan Monastery burned completely down four times, endured three plagues, and suffered the effects of one massively destructive earthquake. During that time, the monastery was destroyed and plundered time and again, by the Swedes, the French, and the Austrians. But still, the undaunted monks returned to rebuild—and to brew and sell beer.

In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria issued the Bavarian Purity Law, or, in German, Reinheitsgebot. This mandated that only barley, hops, and water be used in the crafting of beer (yeast was later added to the list), thereby establishing the primacy of Bavarian and Weihenstephan beer. The law also set the price of beer, limited the profits innkeepers could collect, and made confiscation the penalty of impure brewing practices.

(Interestingly, Reinheitsgebot is still German law. Modern brewers have lobbied to modify the restrictions so that they can compete with flavored American craft beers. A revised version of the law passed in 1993 allows for a wider variety of malted grains in top-fermented beers.)

In 1803, the Wesihenstephan Monastery was secularized. With the stroke of a governmental pen, all of the land and structures became property of the Bavarian State. Nevertheless, the brewery persisted.

In the late 1800s, an agricultural school was established at Weihenstephan, and by 1919 it had been elevated to the University for Agriculture and Brewery, which was further affiliated with the Technical University in Munich in 1930. Today Weihenstephan shares its site with the University of Munich’s Faculty of Brewing, the most renowned in the industry. The most popular academic disciplines are brew master and brew engineer.

 Today you can take a tour of the nearly 1,000-year history of the brewery, guided by an aspiring beer master from the university. Though the building has been reconstructed many times, the physical footprint and layout haven’t changed much over the past hundreds of years. There are still vaulted ceilings and dark basements, where vast stainless steel vats have replaced the old oak barrels. Tours end with beer-tasting in a souvenir wheat-beer glass. Weihenstephan produces around 6 million gallons of beer a year. Its wheat beer makes up about 88 percent of the brewery’s total output, though 12 different types of beer are on offer, including a dark beer, a pilsner, a seasonal lager, and an alcohol-free version.

The Bavarian region is famously rife with breweries, some of which have challenged Weihenstephan’s claim to be the oldest. The nearby Hofbrauhaus in Freising has been in operation since the 1100s. Some 90 kilometers north, Weltenburg Abbey brewery is by some reckonings the oldest monastic brewery in the world, having been in operation since 1050.

Obviously, the only thing to do is to take a tour of all the breweries and decide for yourself not just which one is oldest but which is best. Perhaps in the year 2040, when Weihenstephan turns 1,000. Prost!

 E.L. Hamilton

The Amazon’s solar-powered river bus

Children on the solar canoe on their way to school
Image captionA school commute with a difference

How can you create public transport in the jungle without polluting it? The isolated Achuar peoples of Ecuador have created an ingenious solution.

A couple of hours before dawn in Kapawi, a village in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a group of men gather to drink litres of tea made from the guayusa plant. One by one they then disappear into the dark to vomit.

This ritual, known as guayusada, is designed to purge and energise and culminates in a sharing of dreams from the night.

It was during one of these ceremonies more than half a century ago that a dream was shared of a “canoe of fire”.

And this dream has recently been realised for the Achuar.

Ecuador's solar canoe in the Amazon

Since April 2017, a canoe powered solely by solar energy travels back and forth along the 67-km (42-mile) stretch of the Capahuari and Pastaza rivers that connect the nine isolated settlements that live along their banks.

The boat Tapiatpia – named after a mythical electric eel in the area – gives the Amazon its first solar powered public transport system.

A map of Achuar territory, South East EcuadorImage copyrightALDEA
Image captionAchuar territory, Ecuador

“The solar canoe is an ideal solution for this place because there is a network of interconnected navigable rivers and a great need for alternative transport,” says Oliver Utne, a US environmentalist who has been working with the community since 2011.

The community previously relied entirely on gasoline canoes, known as peque peques, but they are expensive to run and only owned by a few families per village.

The canoe costs passengers just $1 (71p) each per stop, whereas peque peques cost $5-10 in gasoline for the same journey. Gasoline costs five times more here than in the capital Quito because there are no roads and it needs to be flown in.

Solar technician, Oliver Utne
Image captionSolar technician, Oliver Utne

Of course there is an environmental impact too – the canoe means no pollution in one of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity.

With a roof of 32 solar panels mounted on a traditional canoe design of 16 x 2-metre (52 x 7-feet) fibreglass, Tapiaptia carries 18 passengers.

Its navigator, Hilario Saant, tells me how the canoe is changing lives.

Navigator and community elder, Hilario Saant stands on the solar canoe
Image captionNavigator and community elder, Hilario Saant

“We are helping the community when there are sick children. They call me on the radio and we take the children to the health centre,” he says.

Similarly, more children are now at school because it is more affordable, and there are more inter-community sports events too.

Suddenly, our conversation is interrupted by the excited scream of one of our fellow passengers as they spot a school of pink dolphins. Another advantage of the boat is that its relative quiet doesn’t scare the animals.

The solar canoe tied up at a village port
Image captionThe solar canoe tied up at a village port

Back on dry land Julián Ilanes, a leader of the Territory of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE), tells me about the wider opportunities provided by the canoe.

Numerous territorial wars have severed the connection between the Achuar in Ecuador and their cousins over the border in Peru. Mr Ilanes hopes to re-establish trade between the two, something that has thus far been economically impossible due to the distance and the cost of gasoline.

“We can bring clothes and rubber from Peru, and they need green bananas, chicken, and peanuts from us,” he explains.

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The Achuar

An Amazonian community who span the Ecuador-Peru border, numbering around 19,000 people in total

Their culture centres on the importance of dreams and visions and they believe in Arutam – the spirit of the rainforest

Semi-nomadic until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1940s, they now live in small villages, sustaining themselves through hunting, fishing, and arable farming

Their remote location has allowed them to preserve their lifestyle

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And the canoe helps strengthen the community’s resilience against the construction of roads.

“Having no roads helps us to maintain our culture, to have the wisdom not to forget what the Achuar culture really is,” says René Canelos, a 27-year-old from Sharamentsa, one of the villages served by the canoe.

René Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village
Image captionRené Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village

The arrival of roads in indigenous communities in the north of Ecuador and in Peru has led to development and oil exploration, and with it, deforestation.

Ecuador’s government has argued that roads will improve the Achuar’s access to health care and education, so the canoe helps the community prove they can manage without them.

“The neighbours who let the oil companies in not only saw how this destroyed their forests, but also how it created a lot of internal conflicts because not everyone knew how to take advantage of the money that came in,” says Felipe Borman, a traditional canoe manufacturer.

Mr Borman has come to work with the Achuar on a new prototype of the boat because its current engine, originally designed in Germany, is struggling with the Amazon’s hot sandy stick-strewn waters.

The solar canoe cruising the wide rivers in Achuar territory

The ultimate dream for Mr Utne and Mr Saant is a whole network of sustainable solar canoes navigating these ancient Amazonian highways.

“We really think this can be a model for the rest of the Amazon, and also other places around the world where there is difficulty in accessing gasoline, where there is no road network, and there’s ecosystems that the local people are working to preserve,” says Mr Utne.

But he says the key element is that it was designed first and foremost to work locally.

“Personally, I think that large-scale solutions disconnect us, and I think we get to where we are precisely because we are disconnected.”

“What we need is to create local solutions, and if they work, replicate them in other places,” he says.

Members of the Achuar in Sharamentsa village

At the local level, at least, the difference is palpable.

“I love my boat… it’s a dream come true for the Achuar,” says Mr Saant proudly.

“I’m never going to abandon it, I’m going to continue working for the canoe until I die.”

This BBC series was produced with funding from the Skoll Foundation

Why a faecal transplant could save your life

Poo transplant illustration

The faecal transplant, also known as trans-poo-sion, surely has the title of medicine’s most disgusting procedure.

It is pretty much what you are imagining – part of a faecal stool is taken from one person and given to another.

The purpose is to introduce new beneficial microbes to the receiving patient’s digestive system.

And it can be life-saving.

It shows just how important microbes, which colonise nearly every surface of our body, are to our health.

The gut is an exceptionally rich world with many different species of micro-organisms interacting with each other and our human tissue.

Down in the dark, oxygen-deprived depths of your bowels is an ecosystem as rich as a rainforest or coral reef.

But a bacterium called Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) can take over and dominate the bowels.

It is an opportunist and normally takes hold after patients have been treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotic drugs are one of the miracles of the modern age, but they kill good and bad bacteria alike.

They are like a forest fire burning through the gut’s microbiome – the collected micro-organisms living down there – leaving behind a scorched microbial earth on which C. difficile flourishes.

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The microbiome

Bacteria
  • You are more microbe than human – if you count all the cells in your body, only 43% are human
  • The rest is our microbiome and includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and single-celled archaea
  • The human genome – the full set of genetic instructions for a human being – is made up of 20,000 instructions called genes
  • But add all the genes in our microbiome together and the figure comes out at between two million and 20 million microbial genes and is known as the second genome

More than half your body is not human

Gut Instinct: Why I put my poo in the post

Does vaginal seeding boost health?

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Performing the transplant

The problem with C. difficile is that patients will have multiple bouts of watery and even bloody diarrhoea every day, tummy cramps, fever and in the most severe cases the infection is fatal.

The best that medicine has to offer is more antibiotics; it is the definition of a vicious circle.

A stool transplant – or to give it its full title “a faecal microbiota transplant” – aims to repopulate the patient’s gut with the microbes from a healthy person.

A relative is often used as they would have had similar gut bacteria.

After a “sample” is produced, it is mixed with water.

Some techniques break the poo up by hand while others blitz it in a household blender.

There are two routes for getting the sample into the required location – down through the mouth or up through the rectum.

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Listen to The Second Genome on BBC Radio 4.

The next episode airs 11:00 BST Tuesday April 24, repeated 21:00 BST Monday April 30 and on the BBC iPlayer

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Dr Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State in the US, was part of the team trying to prove trans-poo-sion works.

The patient was a 61-year-old woman who had had chronic diarrhoea for around eight months and had lost 27kg in weight.

“It was really a desperate plea for some kind of solution, she was at risk of dying from this C. difficile infection, all of the antibiotics were ineffective,” said Dr Jansson.

A sample of healthy stool was transplanted from her husband.

Dr Jansson told the BBC she was very surprised at its success.

“Amazingly two days after that she was able to have normal stools, normal bowel movements, she was basically cured,” she said.

“As a microbial ecologist, this is very unusual.

“We saw she went from a very diseased state, when you look at the microbial species, to a healthy microbiome that was very similar to her husband’s,” Dr Jansson added.

Body bacteria illustration

Trials have suggested the procedure is around 90% effective.

The excitement in the field has led to some people even performing their own DIY faecal transplants with groups like OpenBiome in the US – essentially a public stool bank – being set up.

But will trans-poo-sions mean anything for medicine beyond C. difficile?

The interaction between our human and microbial selves is being investigated in nearly every disease you can think of.

The microbiome has been linked to diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, whether cancer drugs work and even depression and autism.

But this means there could be unintended consequences of a faecal transplant.

There was a report in 2015 of a woman gaining 36lb (16kg) and being classed as obese after a transplant from her daughter.

It is possible to make mice thinner or fatter by transplanting into them the microbiome from either a lean or obese human, although the jury is still out on whether the same rules apply in people.

Scales illustrations

There is also the more obvious risk of transferring dangerous disease-causing microbes.

It is why scientists are trying to move on from donating faeces to donating cocktails of bacteria.

Dr Trevor Lawley, from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said future treatments had to be more refined and targeted.

“Faeces is an undefined community, and when you develop a drug first and foremost you have to consider the safety of the patient,” he said.

“We have an idea of what bugs to put in now, so if you have a defined mixture that’s proven safe, we can overcome that.”

And that is likely to be the future of microbial medicine – knowing what is the problem in an individual patient’s microbiome and being able to address that.

Illustrations: Katie Horwich

The 150-year-old story of Sri Lankan tea-making

 

Two tea pluckers work on a plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Almost 5% of the population of Sri Lanka work in the billion-dollar tea industry, picking leaves on the mountain slopes and processing the tea in plantation factories.

The cultivation and selling of black tea has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans since 1867.

Documentary photographer Schmoo Theune visited plantations in the country to explore the world of Ceylon tea production.

A tea plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright SCHMOO THEUNE

Tea bushes on mountain slopes are situated above the barracks-style housing which each plantation provides for its workers.

Tea buds must be picked by hand every seven to 14 days, before the leaves grow too tough.

This means the working location can change from day to day, depending on where the buds need to be collected.

The tea leaves are gathered in tarpaulin bags, which are lighter than the traditional wicker baskets that were once used.

A tea plucker in a plantation fieldImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

The leaves are weighed throughout the day and a tea-picker earns 600 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), which is approximately £2.70, if they reach the desired quota of 18kg a day.

If they do not meet this target then they are paid 300 LKR (approximately £1.30).

Some plantations use different wage models, such as paying staff monthly and offering temporary loans to employees.

The majority of Sri Lankan tea workers are ethnically Indian Tamils, a people who were transported by the British to work on the plantations.

They differ from Jaffna Tamils who originate from Sri Lanka’s north.

A person travels down a road in a small sunlit valleyImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Dirt roads connect the workers’ housing to the tea plantations.

Tea bushes are grown on steep hillsides a metre apart.

Altitude affects the flavour of the tea, with higher altitudes producing a more delicately flavoured crop.

This is more highly valued than the robustly flavoured tea produced at lower elevations.

A tea plucker holds out her handsImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Veteran tea-pickers often have rough callouses on their hands.

The difficult physical nature of the work is causing a shortage of young tea-pickers.

Many daughters are choosing to work in garment factories, or abroad in domestic roles, rather than the fields of the plantations.

There can be four different levels of hierarchy on a small plantation, ranging from the owner down to tea-pickers.

Each layer supervises the level below it.

The sun sets over worker houses on a tea plantation near Kandy.Image copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some of the houses the workers live in were built by the British during a housing boom in the 1920s when about 20,000 rooms were built for tea-pickers.

The buildings have changed little since.

Families raise their children in a village setting in colourful barracks-style houses.

Many buildings only have electricity or running water for a few hours each day, or do not have them at all.

Many daily tasks such as washing or bathing are carried out in streams and rivers.

Families walk outside their houses next to a tea plantation.Image copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE
The side of a tea plantation houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman collects water in containers outside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some areas of housing are supplied with water only once every three days which must be collected in containers.

Tea-pickers and other labourers start work at 7.30am.

In plantation communities, children often have to walk several kilometres to school.

Tea-picking earns relatively low wages, so some tea plantation families have family members who work abroad in the Middle East, or in other cities around Sri Lanka, who send money back home.

A tea plucker poses inside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Women who labour on the plantations also have household duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.

A shelf of food containersImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

The fresh tea leaves are taken to a factory near the plantation for processing, like the one seen below near the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.

A view of a tea plantation factoryImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

‘Withering’ is the first step, requiring the blowing of dry air to extract moisture from the leaf, which gives it a pliable texture.

A batch of 18kg of fresh leaves can yield 5kg of Ceylon tea after it has been processed in plantation factories.

A worker places tea leaves into a machineImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

A rolling machine then twists the withered leaves and begins the fermentation process, which starts to develop the distinctive flavour.

The machinery used in the tea processing is often up to 100 years old.

Finished tea is separated by leaf size, and packaged in bulk bags to be sent for auction in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

A machine processes tea leavesImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman past a large pile of processed teaImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
Workers work in a tea shop in KandyImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Ceylon tea is not just an export, it is an essential part of Sri Lankan daily life, consumed by office workers, labourers, students, and everyone in-between.

A tea plucker works on a plantationImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE  
BBC News 10 April 2018

How cured meats protect us from food poisoning

But in many parts of the world, this is not such an unusual sight. Walking down a quiet street in Asia, you’ll often happen on slightly macabre culinary set-pieces – long, thick slices of pork belly, draped over a clothes hanger, slabs of fish, or even, as I did once, a whole pig leg dangling next to a light post, hoof and all. As unnerving as it sometimes is to come across, these al-fresco meat dryers are doing something that’s been done for centuries, if not millennia: air-curing.

When we stress about forgetting the chicken breasts on the counter for an afternoon, how is it possible to leave meat — in the Sun, no less — for days, eat it, and live to tell the tale?

The key is moisture. Inside a length of pork, or that whole pig leg, there’s a race going on between bacteria and evaporation, with those hoping for a nice bit of ham for lunch egging the evaporation on.

Chinese pork sausages (Credit: Getty Images)

In China, pork sausages are also often dried in the air (Credit: Getty Images)

That process usually begins with salt. Coating a piece of meat with salt draws the water within the tissue out to the surface, where it evaporates, in much the same way that salting a slice of aubergine or courgette will get rid of its excess water. At the same time, the salt makes the surface of the meat and some portion of the interior inhospitable to microscopic bacterial beasts. That level of saltiness will strip them of their water as well, leaving only harmless microbe jerky.

With a large piece of meat, however, the evaporation race cannot draw out water fast enough to keep the interior safe. Injecting the salt, mixed with a tiny bit of water, deep into the muscle every inch or so, helps take care of that. This treatment often includes small amounts of sodium nitrite, a preservative that halts microbial growth at the same time that it clings to proteins in the muscle, in a chemical reaction that turns the meat a gentle pink. Water might encourage bacterial life, but in this case it also allows the cure, as the salt and nitrite mixture is known, to trickle further. That’s why, in many recipes for dry curing, the first stage is to leave the meat in a cool, moist environment, says Antonio Mata, a meat scientist and an adviser to the food website AmazingRibs.com.

If you draw out moisture too quickly, the surface of the ham dries out – Greg Blonder, Boston University

Once the cure has seeped into the meat, it’s time to turn the temperature up and play the evaporation game again – but gently. “If you draw out moisture too quickly, the surface of the ham dries out,” says Greg Blonder, a professor at Boston University and another scientist for the same site. Traditionally, the exact details of the process vary according the local climate – “Ham recipes depend on terroir,” Blonder notes – but someplace warm with carefully controlled humidity is key.

In China, as in many other places, home-cured meats ranging from preserved pork belly to wind-dried pork sausages are usually made in winter, when the climactic conditions allow meat to dry safely, and are considered a festive food. (Humans aren’t the only ones with a taste for cured meat, however; home curers should beware the cheese skipper, larder beetle, and red-legged ham beetle, warns a Virginia Tech pamphlet on curing ham. These whimsically named insects will lodge themselves and their growing families in a drying piece of meat.)

Dried ham (Credit: Getty Images)

Salting the outside of the meat draws out moisture, making it harder for bacteria to survive (Credit: Getty Images)

Even if you can dodge the cheese skippers, it can take months for a dry-cured ham to reach a tasty equilibrium. But many cultures around the world have proven themselves ready to wait. China’s famed Jinhua ham usually ages for at least six months; Italy’s culatellogoes for 14-48 months. The most expensive ham in the world, from Spain, ages for six years, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The longer a ham goes, the funkier it usually tastes, as the fat eventually begins to go rancid. But for some, it’s all part of the taste adventure.

These days, the evaporation process takes place in carefully controlled chambers and can be stretched out for a surprisingly long time

Desiccation is also important to making dry-aged beef, that mainstay of high-end restaurants, where letting a cut of beef gradually lose moisture and grow a protective rind of mould, which is sliced off before cooking, produces a stronger flavour. These days, the evaporation process takes place in carefully controlled chambers and can be stretched out for a surprisingly long time, given that in dry-aging there are no preservatives to keep the meat from going off. In fact, Mata once worked with a chef in Chicago to produce beef that had been aged for 71 days.

In the past, however, home cooks had a decidedly low-tech approach. “Let it hang in your cellar as long as you can bear for the stinking,” reads one recipe from 18th Century England, “and till it begins to be a little sappy.”

Try running that one by the neighbours.

By Veronique Greenwood 9 April 2018