RoCK hams it up
This is one of Robert of Cross Key's best Free Market Friday guest posts yet, and it continues today's piggy theme. He calls himself a poor carver, but those ham slices look pretty good to me. EL
Right before the holidays, I went in search of ham. Not that tasteless flesh sold by Hillshire Farms and Hormel -- I’m talking about real ham, America’s prosciutto, country ham.
I’m a recent convert to country ham. I didn’t grow up with it, and like many who didn’t, I found it to be too salty. Over time, however, I developed a taste for it. There are few things that have as much flavor as country ham. A paper-thin slice of country ham fills the mouth more than a pound of city ham. It is intense, but it is also incredibly satisfying.
My desire for country ham took me to the place that is synonymous with the product: Smithfield, Va. Smithfield is to country ham what champagne is to sparkling wines. Lots of places make country ham, but only those hams that are made in Smithfield are Smithfield hams. Put another way, and I’m paraphrasing from something I read in a Junior League cookbook, all Smithfield hams are country hams but not all country hams are Smithfield hams. ...
While in Smithfield I sampled the Smithfield ham in all kinds of ways. At the Smithfield Inn, I went traditional with ham slices on sweet potato rolls. At the Smithfield Station, I went retro with ham croquettes, which were fried ham balls accompanied by an apple and raisin sauce. At the Smithfield Bakery, I went fusion with a Smithfield dim sum platter that featured ham dumplings and spring rolls.
All of those places were good, but perfection was found at a place called Darden’s Country Store located a few miles outside of town.
The Darden family has been curing and smoking hams for almost 60 years in a smokehouse that sits across the road from their general store. Since these hams are made outside the city limits, they are not Smithfield hams. Don’t let this technicality stand in your way. Their ham is phenomenal, an opinion shared by the late Johnny Apple of the New York Times who described it as “the subtlest flavor of any I've tasted.”
I knew as soon as I tasted the Darden’s ham that I wanted to buy one to take home. Unfortunately, a whole ham ran around $100. Now, it was not that the ham was not worth it; rather it was that Darden’s did not take credit cards. I am lucky if I have enough cash on me to cover tolls and parking meters on most days, so there was no way I would have enough clams to buy a whole ham.
I pulled together all the cash I had, which was a handful of singles that totaled about $20. I was able to buy a pound of sliced ham, a few strips of side meat and a bag of hickory nuts. If I had a few more dollars, I would have bought a ham hock and a package of their fresh country sausage.
I still wanted to buy a whole ham, and on the drive back into town I saw a sign from above…in front of the True Value Hardware Store. It proclaimed “country hams, $1.89 per pound.” Now, living in a condo, I don’t visit a lot of hardware stores. Of course, if the hardware stores around here carried salted and cured meats, I would probably be a more frequent customer.
I went inside and picked up a ham. It wasn’t a genuine Smithfield. It was from Ivor, which is in the next county over. It was, however, purchased with plastic and at $1.99 a pound the whole ham was had for under $30. I also picked up a bag of redskin peanuts. You have to love a hardware store that carries everything from ham to nuts.
I made that ham on New Year’s Day. It was a little bit of a challenge, as the preferred method for making a country ham is to boil it. The largest stock pot I had was more chicken-sized than ham-sized, which meant that I had to bake the ham in an unconventional way. The ham was placed in an oven for a few minutes of 500 degree heat followed by hours of cooling down.
The ham turned out great this way. One of the great benefits of baking as opposed to boiling a ham was the wonderful smell in my kitchen. It reminded me of a great line the curator at the Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield said to me. I asked her if there were any complaints about the smell of producing hams. She said some people grumble about it, but other people say, “Mmmmm…smells like money.”