I was watching a cooking show on TV, probably the excellent “Mind of a Chef” season with Ed Lee, when it occurred to me I had not eaten any country ham in way too long. Thank goodness we have the Internet to help us with problems like this.
Country ham is the American South’s answer to prosciutto and Jamon Serrano. It’s often smoked, always salty, and cured by air drying to the point that much of the moisture is gone and the meat becomes gamey and intensely flavorful. My last country ham was several packets of slices from Clifty Farms, so long ago they don’t even sent me catalogs any more. I had fond memories, but wanted to try something new.
Edwards in Surrey, VA is often cited as the pinnacle of country ham execution, but tragically their smokehouse burnt down in January 2016 and, though it has been rebuilt, the long aging means their signature “Wigwam” ham will not be available until November 2017. I was not tempted by the fill-in products, such as some 4-6 month cured country hams which may or may not come from the new smokehouse. I also had some trepidation about pricing: a 14-16 lb. bone-in Wigwam ham is $180, and their “Suryano” from heritage breeds is even more.
Luckily I lit on the Benton’s Country Hams website, where they sell a ham with the same long aging as Edwards for less than half the price. This is a highly respected brand which is used in a number of prestigious restaurants but they’ve been able to achieve economies of scale while keeping the quality, and the use of humane husbandry practices, intact. And they had an offer that I found irresistible: Benton would slice that ham for me and deliver several packets of slices plus the skin and the bone wrapped separately for just a few dollars more than the whole ham. (This is what they call the “Aged Whole Country Ham Deboned & Trimmed” with product code AWCHDT.)
Less than a week later, the package was on my doorstep. There weren’t any icepacks, but I wouldn’t need them in my locale in early March; don’t know what they do in the Southern summer heat. I dug in and it was indeed mighty good eating. If you are adventurous you can enjoy this meat pretty much as you would prosciutto or Serrano, though you need to make allowances for the thicker cut: instead of wrapping a paper-thin slice around a piece of cantaloupe, you’d cut a square and put it on top with a toothpick. Or you can fry it up with its own fat in which case it becomes a completely different product, a sort of ham jerky, crispy and salty. Eat a slice like a pork chop, or chop it and add to blackeye peas or greens and you will be in heaven.
Shipping wasn’t cheap, so I added four one-pound packages of bacon (only way they sell it). This also was a revelation. The thick slices give up their fat without sticking as you fry them, so you quickly end up with crispy strips of bacon and a generous amount of delicious bacon grease for future adventures.
This is good stuff, and the value makes it hard to pass up. You’re paying the supermarket gourmet bacon price for what may be the best bacon you’ve ever had, and getting an even better deal on the ham. Really, stop reading right now and order you some.