THERE’S a lovely story that the first York hams were smoked in the ruins of York Minster centuries ago. But as with many legends, there’s not a lot of truth behind them.

In fact, the real York ham is a more modern invention. Nineteenth-century butcher Robert Burrow Atkinson is the name forever linked with one of the city’s finest exports.

He began selling home-cured pork legs in the later part of the 1800s from his shop at 61 Blossom Street, on its junction with East Mount Road (opposite Holgate Road).

Originally, he had a butcher’s further along Blossom Street, near the Bar Convent. Seeking larger premises he moved to number 61, formerly the site of the Sun Inn. Atkinson had the building demolished and his new shop constructed in its place.

Critically, he kept the pub’s cavernous cellars, which were to provide the perfect curing rooms for his York ham.

The cool cellars which once held barrels of beer were the perfect temperature for curing giant sides of meat. Up to 400 could be cured at any one time.

Ian Robertson of Alma Terrace worked for Atkinson’s in the 1960s and 1970s when it had become a wine merchants; it had long stopped selling ham.

Instead of legs of ham, the cellar was filled with rack after rack of quality wines and bottles of port. Ian said: “The cellars were very big, with massive wooden beams and hundreds of hooks.

“The walls were painted in a whitewash and during the years I was there salt was still coming out of the walls!”

Back then, the building was a real landmark in York. On its southern gable end was an advertisement for Guinness featuring its legendary mascot, a giant Toucan.

York Press:

Blossom Street in the 1960s, with the Guinness Toucan advert on the left

Ian says: “It was a landmark to everybody heading into York from that side of town – a bit like the Bile Beans advert on Lord Mayor’s Walk. Guinness paid an awful lot of money for that space, it was a prime advertising slot.”

Ian worked closely with Roger, one of Robert Atkinson’s three sons. It was from Roger that he learned about the shop’s unique link with one of York’s most famous products.

“He told me how the shop was the registered home of the York ham,” begins Ian, adding that there was a certificate to that effect on the wall of one of the upstairs offices.

“The ham was cured for between three months and three years. The longer they were cured, the more expensive they were, which appealed to the aristocracy.

“York hams were cured with salt, although some were soaked in a fat mixture, then allowed to dry and finally covered in sawdust from apple trees.”

Ian said the busiest time was on race day.

“Thousands of race-goers would walk past the butcher’s shop on their way from York Railway Station to the Knavesmire.

York Press:

Banks the butcher in Clifford Street, which also sold York ham

“Punters would call into the shop to buy slices of York ham, or ham and mustard sandwiches, or even hams to take home. There was a choice of smoked or unsmoked.”

People enjoyed the distinctive taste of the ham and asked for it at their local butchers, enhancing the reputation of the York ham.

This reputation was furthered following a court case involving a butcher’s in Leeds that tried to pass off an inferior product.

Ian said: “They marketed it as York-Ham but not The York Ham. The Atkinson family took the Leeds butcher to court and obtained an injunction to prevent anyone calling their ham product York Ham or The York Ham unless it was cured within two miles of the city of York boundary.”

Ian doesn’t think the ruling can apply today: “I have recently eaten York Ham in Bangkok produced by a Yorkshire butcher based in Thailand called Billy Bunter’s Pork Butchers!”

After Atkinson’s demise, the York ham was made elsewhere in the city, including Banks butcher’s in Clifford Street (now Prezzo restaurant), and Scott’s in Petergate, until it closed in 2008 (after 130 years of service).

Tradition may be restored, however. New pork butcher’s Appleton’s on Lendal hopes to be selling York ham by the summer.

York Press:

Appleton's in Lendal, which hopes to be selling traditional York ham by the summer

Owner Anthony Sterne is rearing his own pigs – Large Whites, which were used for the York ham. Large Whites were originally called the Yorkshire pig, and were commonly kept by people in their back yard, but are considered a rare breed now. Large Whites are perfect for making York ham with its distinctive dry, salty taste, because they have more fat than the common pig and are slower growing. Their size help too, providing legs big enough for a traditional York ham.

At the moment, Anthony is experimenting with the best ways to cure the meat.

“I have done a few trials, but it is a long process. Ageing the ham takes five weeks, then it has to be cured for two weeks, so it takes a good couple of months to get a batch ready. The process is still happening, so we are hoping to have them in the shop soon.”

In bringing back the York ham to the city, Anthony hopes to resurrect a long-lost culinary honour. “At one time, York ham was found on menus across the country as the benchmark for a good quality ham – but has since disappeared from the diet.”

Not for much longer it seems.