03-21-2005, 07:03 PM
You can order country ham directly from this address: http://www.cliftyfarm.com/purchase.htm
Their ham is wonderful. I cook several every year, at Thanksgiving, Easter, etc.
Be sure you use a short 2-4 hour soaking in cool water, followed by long slow cooking... currently, I put mine in a roaster with a close fitting lid, after adding 5 cups of water and 1 can of coke, and covering with aluminum foil tightly, then put the lid on it. Place in cold over and turn temperature to 500 degrees. Cook for 1 hour after the oven reaches that temperature, then turn the oven OFF, completely. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR. Let stand 3 hours, then turn oven back on to 500 degrees, and cook for 45 minutes after the oven reaches that temperature. Let stand in closed oven another 6 hours or so. It will still be steaming when you unwrap it. Then glaze as desired, bake 20-30 minutes, then cool, then chill overnight in refrigerator. Then I take it to the grocery meat dept to get it thinly sliced. Wonderful eating!
03-23-2005, 08:15 AM
Alysha -- Today's NY TImes had an excellent article on Smithfield and country hams.
Americana, Salted, Smoked and Sliced Thin
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
THEY have been curing hams in this tidy little community of 7,000 on the southern shore of the broad James River, only a few miles downstream from Jamestown and Williamsburg, for 200 years and more. Queen Victoria, it is said, was an avid consumer of the local delicacy.
Long ago the town was dotted with smokehouses. Every fall hogs were turned into the region's peanut fields, where they feasted on the stubble and the nuts left behind by inefficient harvesting methods. Come winter, the hogs were slaughtered. The hams were then salted, hardwood-smoked and hung up to age for a minimum of 180 days in the heat of summer, until they developed a mahogany color, a smoky aroma, a pungent flavor and a firm but never leathery texture.
Smithfield ham, granddaddy of all the dry-cured country hams produced in a half-dozen Southern states, bears about as much resemblance to your pink, watery, run-of-the-mill brine-cured ham as a horse chestnut does to a chestnut horse. It is much more like Yunnan ham, for which it is often substituted in Chinese restaurants in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere.
I go way back with Smithfield ham. It was an abiding favorite of my father's, though he had no discernible connection with the South, and my mother gave him one for Easter or Christmas every year. He kept a special knife, long and flexible, for carving his treasures, and its use for anything else was strictly verboten.
You want ultrathin slices, he told me. Otherwise the flavor, concentrated by the ham's loss of 30 percent of its weight during aging, would be overwhelming, and the meat would be too chewy. The real family experts on this subject are my wife, Betsey, and her sister, Pie, who grew up in Richmond. In their household Smithfield ham was served either as a "side meat," a foil for something blander, perhaps chicken or turkey, or on beaten biscuits with drinks before dinner. More anon on the biscuits.
Some years ago Betsey brought a Virginia country ham - essentially a Smithfield-style ham made elsewhere in the state - on a trip to Scandinavia. We picnicked on sandwiches in Norway and Sweden and then, cruising on a friend's boat on the rainy Gulf of Finland, made a restorative split pea soup with the hock.
Smithfield wears its age well. St. Luke's Church, one of the country's oldest, built in rosy brick about 1632, stands east of town, and beautifully preserved Colonial and Victorian houses, some of them sheltered by magnificent magnolias, line streets near the Pagan River. But things have changed in two centuries. Peanuts a-plenty still grow here in southeastern Virginia (Planters' headquarters is in nearby Suffolk), but hogs no longer forage in the peanut fields. Mechanical heating and refrigeration have made the changing seasons moot, and Smithfield hams are made all year.
State law still specifies that only hams "cured, treated, smoked and processed in the town of Smithfield" may be sold as genuine Smithfield hams. What that means in practice is that they must be produced in the factory of Smithfield Foods, which owns the only remaining smokehouse in town. Whatever the label says - Joyner, Luter, Amber, Gwaltney or whatever - all Smithfield hams are made in that one plant from hogs that are raised to Smithfield Foods' specifications, here and in North Carolina.
Smithfield Foods is a behemoth formed by the combination of two old-line local companies, Smithfield Packing, controlled by the Luter family, and Gwaltney, as well as the subsequent acquisition of numerous smaller companies, including Krakus of Poland and American packers like Morrell and Cudahy. The nation's largest processor of pork, Smithfield ranked 256th among the American companies on the Fortune 500 list in 2004, with revenues of $7.9 billion.
To keep the Smithfield plant going, a total of some 50,000 hogs a day are slaughtered five days a week in three Smithfield Foods abattoirs, two here and one in North Carolina, according to Timothy A. Seely, Gwaltney's president. Each carcass yields two hams (one ham from each hind leg), which adds up to about 24 million hams a year. Of those, 92 percent are made by the vastly cheaper wet-cure processes and need not concern us here; the other 8 percent are country hams, produced by traditional methods. And of those, only 140,000, not even two days' worth of hogs, are real Smithfields.
Even with modern technology, it is a finicky process. How much salt? How long do you smoke? Lee Edwards, Smithfield Foods' ham master, told me: "You worry. I'm bald because it takes six months to find out whether you did things right."
John Egerton, an authority on the South's culinary traditions, grew up in Trigg County, Ky., which produces some of the country's best artisanal hams. Country ham, he wrote in "Southern Food" (Knopf, 1987), "is an ancient and inimitable treasure, the highest form of the Southern gastronomic art." Like many in the region, he fries quarter-inch slices of uncooked ham for breakfast, adding water or black coffee to the skillet to make red-eye gravy.
Today's Smithfield hams, Mr. Egerton argues, are imperfect because they "hang in artificially heated and cooled aging rooms, never experiencing the summer sweats" as in old-fashioned smokehouses.
I'm less particular than he, I guess, and Betsey and I regularly order either a whole cooked Smithfield ham - cooking your own, believe me, is a long, tedious, messy process - or packaged slices of cooked Smithfield ham, usually from Gwaltney. A favorite dish in our house is what used to be called crab meat Norfolk: slices of Smithfield ham, arranged in individual ramekins (the kind often used for crème brûlée), topped with premium jumbo lump backfin crab meat, dotted with butter and run under the broiler. Surf and turf, sweet with salty.
The beaten biscuits of Betsey's girlhood have all but vanished. Indeed, Mary Stuart Smith said as early as 1885 in her "Virginia Cookery-Book" that they were "sadly out of vogue" because of the labor involved in making them. The invention of a biscuit-making machine only slowed their decline. Now even the most heritage-conscious restaurants in southeastern Virginia serve ham with modern substitutes.
With its copious plantation breakfast, featuring eggs, grits, sausage, bacon and ham, the Old Chickahominy House, on the Williamsburg-Jamestown road, offers square, pita-like, baking-powder biscuit pockets. The Surrey House Restaurant, at Surry, fills small, buttered dinner rolls - three to a portion - with thinly sliced ham. Both use the superb country ham produced by S. Wallace Edwards & Sons Inc. also in Surry, which is slightly milder than Smithfield ham.
For a quick fix, we like to pair Virginia ham, either Smithfield or Edwards's, with the fluffy potato rolls widely sold in Maryland and Pennsylvania, or even the baking-powder biscuits that come chilled, ready for baking, in cardboard tubes.
Samuel W. Edwards III, the third-generation president of his family's firm, which has been in business for 79 years, said he tries "to take the best of what Mother Nature used to provide us with before refrigeration, and try to duplicate it all year." He finds the hybrid hogs of the sort Smithfield Foods uses too lean for his purposes, so he buys pork from Duroc and Berkshire hogs locally, in the Midwest or in Pennsylvania.
During a recent talk Mr. Edwards told me about a source in Lynchburg, Va., for the elusive beaten biscuits. The size of half-dollars, about three-quarters of an inch thick, they have the same jaw-breaking consistency as New England common crackers. A tin of 36 costs $12 on the Web at www.thefarmbasket.com. If I order some, Betsey promises, she will split them, butter them, heat them up a little and then slap slivers of ham between the halves. They will be a life-changing experience, she vows.
Smithfield Foods dominates its hometown. John B. Edwards, the editor of The Smithfield Times, the local weekly, told me, "They own everything around here that has anything to do with pigs."
Its scale is certainly enormous. I visited a cold room where hundreds of hams, coated with a mixture of 3 ounces of nitrite for each 100 pounds of meat, were stacked on wooden pallets, gradually yielding much of their moisture. Each pile bore a tag showing the date when it had been salted. One said, "1/21/05," and the hams in that pile, already well along, had tallowy fat. Hogarth would have felt completely at home.
The next stop is an intermediate step known as "equalizing," and then the hams go into a series of chambers in a smokehouse built largely of wood, "so it can expand and contract with the heat," as Lee Edwards, the ham master, explained. (Half the people in the area seem to be named Edwards, and they all insist that they're not related.) Fires are built from aged oak and green hickory in 55-gallon oil drums below, then topped with wet sawdust to keep them smoldering. The smoke rises through slats to the thousands of hams hanging above.
To get a glimpse of smaller-scale country-ham-making, a visit to Darden's Country Store, deep in rural Isle of Wight County south of Smithfield, seemed in order. When Betsey and I pulled up, the young woman minding the shop told us that Tommy Darden, the owner, was out on his tractor, feeding the cows. So we killed a few minutes poking around the place, decorated with mounted bucks' heads and a Virginia Tech banner, and inspecting the shelves, sparsely stocked with moon pies, tinned mackerel and big wheels of Wisconsin cheese.
Mr. Darden, a beefy man of sweet disposition, wearing a camouflage hunting cap and a Washington Redskins sweatshirt, told us that he makes about 750 hams a year in the little smokehouse across the road from the store, and sells every one of them to people who find their way to him through word of mouth. That saves him, he said, from the kind of regulatory headaches experienced by the big guys. (Smithfield Foods, from which he buys raw hams for curing, has run afoul of state and federal regulators because of its enormous manure lagoons, which critics say cause water pollution.)
"I started in the Future Farmers of America, and I do exactly what my father did," Mr. Darden said. "I salt for a day and a half per pound, I smoke over hickory and apple wood, I coat the hams with pepper and borax to deter bugs, which is washed off before I sell them, and I hang them right there in the shed, with no temperature or humidity controls at all. The older they get, the redder they get, the saltier they taste.
"I'm the last farmer in the county, I think, who's still doing it this way. It's a dying art, a dying something."
It's also a sideline for Mr. Darden, a kind of hobby for a man who cherishes agricultural tradition. He farms 600 acres (peanuts, cotton, soy and corn) and raises beef cattle in addition to making hams. By my lights it's worth it; his country ham has the subtlest flavor of any I've tasted, and I couldn't resist buying one, cooked and boned, for $92. Who knows when I'll get back to the wilds of Isle of Wight County?
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