This column first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

In the hoopla over the introduction of Spanish serrano ham into the United States a few years ago, and the gushing over Italian prosciuttos before that, one of the world’s great hams has gotten left out -- American country ham.

Unlike the more common wet-cured ham, which is soaked in brine or injected with a salt solution, country ham is dry-cured and aged over a much longer period. "There’s city ham and there’s country ham. Country ham is a different animal altogether," said John Ash, Culinary Director of Fetzer Vineyards Wine and Food Center at Valley Oaks, Calif.
"Wet-cured hams have a lot of water so they have a watery flavor. The flavor of country hams is more intense," said Eman Loubier, sous chef of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. It’s not surprising that country ham’s flavor is so concentrated. Government guidelines require that at least 18% of the ham’s original weight be lost during the curing and aging process. Longer aging takes that figure over 20 percent.

So why don’t more Americans flock toward country hams? "Many people think it’s a kind of weird product when they see it," Ash said. And when I removed the traditional muslin sack and white butcher paper from my Smithfield ham, I felt as if I had just dug up something from the ruins of Pompeii. Aged for just under a year, the ham was covered with a smoky gray coating and was as hard as a Louisville Slugger.

"Now what?" would be the question asked by most people who have received such a ham as a gift. Indeed, another reason for the lack of demand for country hams outside their native South and Southeastern United States is that they need to be worked on before they can be consumed. Overnight soaking (or longer) and long slow simmering in water for about 20 minutes a pound or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees are needed before the ham is ready for a baked glaze finish.

But country ham manufacturers have gotten smart in recent years and are performing the soaking and simmering tasks for consumers. Today, most every producer sells ready-to-eat hams, even slices. There is one final obstacle, however - salt. By law, the salt content of country hams must be at least 4 percent.

"You’re never going to get all the salt out. But that salty taste is what makes country hams unique," said Peter Pruden, president of The Smithfield Ham & Products Company, Inc. in Smithfield, VA, which makes V.W. Joyner and Amber Brand Smithfield hams. The saltiness is mitigated somewhat by using country ham more as an accent in other dishes than as the centerpiece of the meal.

At the Trellis Restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, country ham is often used in soups like potato leek. It goes into the walnut butter for the "toasted" salmon fillet. And the saltiness of thinly sliced country ham acts as a perfect foil for a sweet ripe melon, instead of prosciutto.

John Ash thinks country ham is "magical" when chopped and added to sauces. "All you need is a little," he said. "It’s sort of like adding a bit of saffron or truffle."

This is not to say you can’t serve country ham like a conventional ham for Easter dinner. "I just put it on the dining room buffet and let people slice it themselves to put on biscuits," said Merle Ellis, author of The Great American Meat Book and a spokesman for the National Country Ham Association. To carve such a ham, first cut a wedge from the shank portion with the fat side up. Then slice thinly toward the shank at a 45-degree angle with a sharp knife. Country ham tastes best at room temperature.

Virginia was an early center for ham production, particularly in the town of Smithfield. Malory Todd was the first to commercially produce what became known as Smithfield hams in the mid 18th century. Smithfield hams became so famous that in 1926 the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that said that only peanut-fed hogs cured and processed in the town of Smithfield could be called Smithfield hams. In 1966, the peanut feed stipulation was dropped. Now hogs are fed a variety of grains, primarily corn. Today, there are only four companies that can legally sell their products as Smithfield hams, though all sell far more country hams without the Smithfield label.

The other main country ham producing states are Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Aside from Smithfield hams, which are aged longer most others, the major difference between one country ham and another is less an issue of geography than of the particular style of the individual producer. The basic method for making all country hams is the same. The hind leg of the pig is generously rubbed with salt, which cures the meat in a 38-degree room over 40 days. Many country ham producers also use sugar, which not only sweetens the meat but also helps to tenderize it. Most also use saltpeter (potassium nitrate) which acts as a preservative and gives the ham a rich color.

Once the ham is cured, it is aged in an 80-degree, 60 percent humidity room for a minimum of 25 days. Some mass produced country hams speed up the aging process by increasing the temperature. These hams are usually cured and aged for a total of 60 to 80 days. Smaller producers like Johnston County Hams, Inc. cure their hams 120 to 180 days. "For optimum quality, a country ham should be cured and aged for a total of at least 90 days. The best is probably 120 to 150 days," said Rufus Brown manager of the company located in, of all places, Smithfield, North Carolina. Like many Virginia country hams, Johnston County hams are hickory smoked. Apple wood, maple, and pine are also used for smoking.

I prepared three uncooked country hams, one from Finchville Farms, a small family run company in Finchville, KY, one from Johnston County Hams, and an Amber Smithfield ham. The Finchville ham, cured with red and black pepper and brown sugar but without nitrates, was unsmoked. It had a rich, slightly gamy flavor. The Johnston ham, which was the least salty of the three, despite needing no soaking, had a delicious, lightly smoked ham flavor. It also carved beautifully. And while this ham had a noticeable salty tang, I didn’t need to down a glass of water after each bite.

The pepper-coated Amber Smithfield ham was soaked for 30 hours then simmered in the oven for almost six hours before glazing. It had deeply smoked, nicely spiced flavor. But this ham was so salty that after a meal of it I felt like I had just crossed the Sahara without a canteen. In addition, the texture was stringy, though I subsequently found out this was probably due to overcooking. Simmering the ham on the stove, fully immersed in water, maintains its integrity more than oven cooking. Better yet, let the pros do it for you. This same ham in read-to-eat form was better than all three of the hams I prepared myself. The texture was silky and prosciutto-like and the flavor terrific. Amazingly, it was less salty than the others.

I also tried slivers of country ham in place of pancetta for spaghetti carbonara with superb results. Bits of ham were also great with hearty greens like broccoli rabe. And nothing adds more flavor to a bean soup than that ham bone.

Soft fruity red wines with little tannin like pinot noir, off-dry whites like gewürztraminer, and California sparkling wines are good choices with country ham. Hard cider is also a good idea. Sweet sauces or chutneys balance out saltiness.

The uses for leftover country ham are virtually endless. And it will last for weeks in the refrigerator, if you can keep your hands off it.

How to Get it
Most country hams are available by mail. Sizes range from 13 to 15 pounds, though some go as high as 17 pounds and as low as 11 pounds. Prices are generally from $3.50 to $4 a pound, which includes shipping and handling.

Country Ham
Most country hams are available by mail . Sizes range from 13 to 15 pounds, though some go as high as 17 pounds and as low as 11 pounds. Prices are generally from $3.50 to $4 a pound, which includes shipping and handling.

Johnston County Hams, Smithfield, NC, (800) 543-4267.
Finchville Farms, Finchville, KY, (800) 678-1521.
S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, Surry, VA (800) 222-4267.
Genuine Smithfield Ham producers include:
Luter Smithfield Packing Company, (800) 444-9180.
Gwaltney of Smithfield, (800) 678-0770.
V.W. Joyner & Co., (800) 628-2242.
Amber Brand Smithfield Ham, (800) 628-2242

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