|Left: 18-month aged Surryano ham. Right: 4-month aged, cooked and sliced Virginia Country Ham|
Although I could blame my Philadelphia-born grandmother for this lapse, in actual fact the finger should be pointed at the American food industry, which became obsessed with mass prodution thoughout the second half of the last century. Country ham producers did what every other food business was doing at the time - commodifying their products to compete on price. Country ham, however, requires time, patience, space and more than a little instinct to produce - something machines struggle to duplicate. As a result, true country ham became as rare as Bengal white tigers or, closer to home, stone ground grits.
So what is an American country ham? Forget the brined and un-aged gammons you find in supermarkets. Instead, think of the salt-cured firmness of back bacon, but made from the hind quarters rather than the belly or loin, smoked with hickory rather than oak, and aged for several months, sometimes as long as two years. The result is a deeply coloured, salty, intensely flavoured ham that, as you can imagine, works a treat with a cooked breakfast.
Although country ham is most often served in a similar fashion to British gammon, in some cases the end result is so close to Continental aged hams that they can be eaten uncooked, like proscuitto. In the early nineties European-trained chefs such as Jimmy Sneed started to promote the idea that the some of the better country hams produced by a dwindling band of Southern artisans were worthy of the Continental treatment. It didn't take long before this idea caught on, and with wind in their sails generated by the locavore and slow food movements, American long-cured hams are now de rigueur on the menus of the top restaurants in the country.
However, it can get confusing for the average consumer, who may buy a country ham recommended by a celebrity chef, only to get cold feet about eating it uncooked when confronted with cooking instructions as per USDA regulations. Despite endless reading on the subject, I was confused myself and decided to visit a country ham producer to gain understanding as to which hams to cook, and which to enjoy like prosciutto.
Sam Edwards, the third-generation curemaster and proprietor of S Wallace Edwards & Sons of Surry, Virginia, explained that it all gets down to water activity. The longer a ham is aged, the lower the water activity, and therefore the ability for bacteria to multiply. In general, water activity in hams aged over fourteen months is low enough to be eaten uncooked. However, given the lack of standarisation among country ham producers, the safest thing to do is to buy a country ham that has been produced by an experienced craftsman, who then labels the product as a European-style cured ham, rather than as a country ham.
To make things easier for his customers, Edwards has created three tiers of country hams. Virginia Country Hams, which are aged from four to six months, need to be cooked. Wigwam Hams, aged eight to twelve months and are the closest to the traditional country hams of his grandfather's generation, also requiring cooking. Eighteen-month aged hams, which have achieved the transluscence and tenderness associated with European-cured hams, have been christened Surryano.
Made with humanely reared Berkshire pork which are fed Virginia peanuts, Surryano tastes remarkably similar to its namesake, serrano ham. I recently served Surryano ham to my parents aside bruschetta and a chilled Albariño. It was absolutely delightful, easily rivalling the various Jamón I enjoyed when in Barcelona in July.
Southerners eat cooked and shaved Virginia Country Ham on their famous biscuits, but I prefer to serve it wrapped around cantaloupe, which serves to counter-balance the saltiness. A collection of British ex-pats at a recent party in Washington, DC, mistook it for Parma ham, and were surprised to discover is was the Southern delicacy that they had been avoiding on their excusions south of the Mason Dixon line.
For Christmas I look forward to tackling a whole, bone-in Wigwam Ham, which will likely require a good 24 to 48 hours soaking to remove the salt before a long slow simmer and a quick finishing off in the oven. Until then, I'll work my way though my stock of ham steaks gleened from Edwards shop in Surry, par-boiled and then pan-fried, perhaps lightly glazed with brown sugar, and served with fresh eggs, biscuits and grits for a rescuitating brunch, or collard greens for supper.
Photos of our visit with S Wallace Edwards & Sons
New York Times: Bringing Flavour Back to the Ham
Edwards Virginia Hams
Johnson County Hams Proscuitto