The Wonders of Ham
I've long been a fan of Edwards hams; they're smoky and a bit sweet, with a salinity that tickles but doesn't torch the tongue. When I visited the Edwards smokehouse and country store, the third-generation producer, a genial 53-year-old named Sam Edwards, served me his new release: a 16-to-24-month-aged ham, made from fatty Berkshire pigs; he suggests eating it raw. Called Surryano (a pun on serrano and Surry), it's silky and intense, the perfect thing to wrap around a piece of melon—but that's not how most people eat his long-aged hams.
Edwards took me across the James River on the nearby Surry-Jamestown ferry (which his great-grandfather used to own and operate), then over to the Old Chickahominy House, a restaurant in Williamsburg. Its owner, Maxine Williams, who's worked there for 40 years, sells about 600 biscuits a day made with slices of cooked Edwards ham. Each of her rectangular buttermilk biscuits is a thing of beauty, enveloping slices of luscious ham and browned under the broiler before hitting the table. Williams let me into the kitchen just as one of her cooks, Tony Canaday, was beginning to maneuver his knife around the bones of a 14-pound Edwards ham, which had been simmering for four hours. I asked whether she'd ever bought boneless ham. She shook her head. "Cooking it on the bone keeps it juicy." Then I asked what she did with the scraps. "Ground ham!" she said, as if I should have known. "I sell a lot during the holidays for hors d'oeuvres."
Like folks from Smithfield, the people of Parma, a bustling city of 180,000 in Italy's northern region of Emilia-Romagna, know ham: when I visited last fall, I was struck by how everyone I met knew what producer they like the best, what length of curing suits their tastes, and how to make an outstanding ham sandwich—the local torta fritta is a pillow of lightly fried dough stuffed with shaved prosciutto, whose creamy fat melts into the warm bread. Just south of Parma, particularly in the town of Langhirano, ham is big business. Some 200 producers cure about 9 million hams a year. Most of the hams they make aren't cured in salt for as long as American country hams are, and they aren't smoked, so their flavor is softer, sweeter, and decidedly less salty. Still, I visited a few of those producers and was struck by just how similarly ham-making techniques had developed over the centuries here, halfway around the world from Smithfield. Sure, there are techniques that are distinctive to Parma: there's the sugnatura, or covering of the exposed flesh in lard, and the fact that producers open windows in the aging rooms to let the dry breezes wash over their hams. And there are numerous differences in temperature, humidity, and type of salt used. But the equipment and the aging rooms in Smithfield and Parma seemed remarkably alike.
Italians also produce prosciutto cotto—a cooked quick-cured ham—that tastes a lot like our boiled or baked city hams; it is stuffed into arancini (rice balls), tossed with pasta dishes, and draped over pizza. In fact, almost all dry-aged ham in Italy used to be cooked, just like ham in the American South, as I learned at a museum in Langhirano dedicated to prosciutto. There, I stumbled across a display of recipes from the Middle Ages that called for cooking ham in water or wine; the museum guide pointed out that cooking was merely a precautionary measure against the contamination that sometimes occurred when hams weren't cured properly. In the 1870s, when producers switched from local pigs to a faster-growing English breed, ham makers found that the meat cured more consistently and could safely be eaten raw. After that, uncooked prosciutto di Parma quickly became a luxury food.
As I traveled around Parma and its environs, stopping in at salumerie where butchers sold their own, house-made prosciutti, I couldn't help thinking about the smaller producers I'd encountered around the American South, the ones who cure just a few hams a year and hold fast to the old ways. I met a lot of people like that in Italy, but none made more of an impression on me than Massimo Spigaroli, a chef who is known for his culatello ham, a smaller, boneless cousin of prosciutto made north of Parma with the prized central portion of the haunch. His restaurant, Al Cavallino Bianco, is situated on a working farm along the river Po where his great-grandfather used to raise hogs and cure hams, just as Spigaroli does today. Down in the cellar where his hams hang, he pointed to a high window where a cool, humid wind was rushing in from the river. "Culatello needs this humidity," he explained.
Later, sitting in the restaurant's rustic dining room, I was overwhelmed by the richness and deep flavor of Spigaroli's culatello. Like the best hams—whether from Virginia, an Italian hill town, or Uncle Kent's backyard—they distill the essence of the place where they're made.