Keith Roberts is the National Sales Manager of Edwards Ham, and man can he talk ham. He just wants to make sure he’s using the right words when he talks to you about it. So what started as a desire to develop a ham lexicon, evolved into a bi-coastal ham tasting, starring Keith as lead Hambassador. Along with Mr.Roberts, the event was produced by ham heir Sam Edwards III of S. Wallace Edwards Ham in Surry, Virginia and Heritage Foods Founder and Author Patrick Martins.
If the prospect of tasting fatty, salted and smoked meat for 3 hours sounds exhausting, then you’ve guessed correctly – it sort of was. It was also a revelation. Chefs and food professionals have likely tasted a variety of ham from the South and Europe. Access to fine cured meat has been a thing for awhile now and we’re all pretty comfortable with charcuterie at this point. The opportunity to taste all of these hams alongside each other, with the attention and rigor of say, a formal wine tasting, was informative.
The tastings started last fall in Brooklyn. For their west coast visit last week, they stopped in San Francisco and Napa. The Napa tasting was hosted by Long Meadow Ranch by Chef Stephen Barber, also a Southern man by way of Kentucky. Also worth noting is that Mr. Barber uses the aforementioned Edwards Surryano ham in a formidable ham and cheese biscuit on the LMR brunch menu. Along with Mr. Barber, a collection of chefs and other “food people” gathered in the immensely charming St. Helena culinary compound for a grand ham tasting with a title to match.
Before we get to the hams, there are a couple things worth mentioning. The first is that this article is not meant to serve as an authoritative article on ham. There are many complex technical and instinctual considerations that go into producing ham. That said, there were a few prevailing narratives and discoveries that emerged from that particular tasting that are worth passing along.
One of the best trends happening in the world of food right now is the attention on seasonal eating. There are many environmental and gastronomic benefits to seasonal eating, and it was nice to hear the discussion centered on what this means for livestock – generally not considered in this discussion. The same can be said for terroir and diet.
It is helpful for these things to be considered in an intuitive way. Most of what you want to do for the maturation of the ham mimics the changing seasons. In the winter room, the ham rests under salt at about 40 degrees – it’s coldest time of the year. The spring is a more vibrant time when vitality is induced. For the ham that means about 50 degrees and the onset of fermentation. You may be thinking, “What!? fermentation? I thought we were talking about ham.’ Don’t worry. We are talking about ham. Fermenting ham is totally a thing. In the words of the very wise food scientist Harold McGee, dry-cured hams “are to fresh pork what long-aged cheeses are to fresh milk: a distillation, an expression of the transforming powers of salt, enzymes, and time.” If the breaking down of enzymes and bacteria is fermentation, ham qualifies.
Smoking is not a prerequisite for ham but certainly adds complexities in the production and consumption. As we discussed, the changing conditions like the amount of humidity in the air, temperature, or which way the wind is blowing all have implications for how the smoking will occur. Making ham is all about creating an ideal environment to encourage good bacteria (flavor), while mitigating the risk of (potentially lethal) bad bacteria. From the perspective of the artisan, curing and smoking are all about creating boundaries for the artist to work within- the artist in this case being time.
The longer the aging, the more interesting things become. The flavors become more dense, more umami-driven and more nutty. All of a sudden you’re sucking on meat that tastes like soy and Parmesan rind -in the best way possible, of course. The pungency expressed in the other hams were in its salt and generally porkier flavor.
Finally, and importantly, the ultimate quality always comes down to what pigs are the healthiest. It is the quality of the feed, (and to a lesser degree the breed) that determine the ultimate flavor. This is an important issue. Over 90% of the pigs raised in America are essentially “factory pigs” also known as, “commercial hogs” or “pink pigs.” The ways in which these animals are raised is deplorable and vividly outlined in David Estabrook’s new book, Pig Tales. Fortunately when this was brought up at the tasting, none of it was refuted by the organizers. One of the main reasons for this seems apparent. If you’re in the business of making world-class ham, you must start off with amazing raw material. This was confirmed convincingly in a blind tasting of these 12 hams. Below is a gallery of some of the hams tasted that day in no particular order.
Woodlands Pork Marlborough, MD – Berkshire pig, free-range, “Mountain Hams”
Finchville Farms Finchville, KY – Country ham, conventional, non-smoked
Newsom – Artisan Prosciutto Aged 18 mo, conventional, 2nd-generation smoker
Johnson County Smithville, NC- Curemaster’s Reserve Country Ham Mangalitsa 3 year
Broadbent, Kuttaway, KY – Conventional, cooked, sliced Country Ham Aged 9-12 months
Maestri d’ Italia Parma, IT – Prosciutto di’ Parma; 18 months, organic, salt-cure
Peregrino Spain – Jamon Iberico Bellota 36 months, premium, acorn fed, free-range
Peregrino Spain – Jamon Iberico Aged 24 months, Free-range, nutty, impressive *Not pictured
Edwards Surry, VA – 18 Month Aged Surryano; fruit and richness
La Quercia Norwalk, IA- Tamworth Acorn Fed Prosciutto Aged 36 months, outstanding
Maestri d’ Italia Tuscan Prosciutto – free-range, salt, pepper, garlic and herbs, 16 months
Benton’s Madisonville, TN – Conventional Country Ham; aged 15 months; heavily smoked, dry