Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New American Country Ham

The first hogs were brought to America via Virginia, raised on the appropriately named Hog Island in Surry County. Today, Virginia remains a center of American country ham.

To some extent Smithfield ham has become synonymous with Virginia country ham, but that’s more a case of branding than anything else. Smithfield is to Virginia ham as Kleenex is to tissues. They’re the most well known and the biggest. But they’re not the end of the story. There are many small smokehouses that create special hams. And in spite of Smithfield’s recent moves to eliminate confinement operations, commodity hogs remain at the core of their operation.

Sam Edwards’ family has been curing and selling ham from Surry since the 1920s. We’ve been selling it since the 1980s. He makes a classic Virginia ham, the same kind that was favored by Queen Victoria and sent to the French court for several hundred years. It's salted for three or four weeks, hung chilled for another month, smoked in hickory for up to a week at low temperatures,  then hung to age for a year or more. The smoke is key and its part of everything you taste and smell at the smokehouse. Sam's sister used to call it her dad's cologne.

This is classic American country ham. Compared to even the most robust Spanish hams Sam’s cured hogs have a more forward flavor, in part because of the smoke. Italian prosciutto and its American cousins, like Herb Eckhouse's outstanding hams from La Quercia, are even milder still. While it's still a southern tradition to boil country hams like this, there's really no difference between them and the cured hams of Spain and Italy so I like to eat them as they do: sliced thin straight off the ham, served at room temperature. They go well with Virginia Peanuts, apples and a cold beer.

Several years ago Sam made the move to begin curing hams from Berkshire hogs, a breed of pig that is known for its extensive fat marbling and big flavor. Partly this was a practical decision. Berkshire pork had become a hit among chefs. They demanded restaurant cuts like loins and chops. The hams were left looking for a buyer so the price was fair. In part, though, Sam saw this as a way to make his cured ham taste more like what it used to, before pigs had the fat bred out of them to become “the other white meat.” (It's also raised like it used to be, the hogs are not confined and not fed hormones or antibiotics.) Because he's blessed with a marvelously acute funny bone he called the ham "Surry-ano," a play on Jamon Serrano, the most common cured ham in Spain.

When I visited Edwards salting room this summer it was easy to spot the Berkshire hams. They're much bigger than standard breed hams with a thick ring of fat on the haunch. They take smoke better and age longer. Sam started by aging them 400 days. This fall we're going to have a ham aged over two years (its DNA tag is the first picture on this post). Standard breeds would dry out if aged that long, but the fat on the Berkshires keeps them going.

More notes and photos of Sam Edwards smokehouse.
This appears as an article in Zingerman's upcoming Fall Food Guide 2011.

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