The New Frontier of Country Ham
On a hot day last September, I opened a door and stepped into winter. I was in Surry in rural southeastern Virginia, following Edwards on a tour of his family’s pork-processing plant. The fifty-four-year-old Edwards is a tall man with a big frame, a jowly face, and a bushy gray walrus mustache. He looks like a guy who would cure hams, but he talks like a stockbroker and drives a Lexus SUV with vanity plates that read VA HAM. Winter was a walk-in refrigerator covered in a thick slurry of salt that looked like dirty snow on a city street. Inside, where the mercury hovered at forty degrees, sat fresh hams heaped with salt and piled low on pallets.
To make classic country ham, modern-day commercial curers re-create the changing seasons under a roof, unlike Edwards’s grandfather, who filled tall, square curing houses with meat and let Mother Nature do her thing. At the Edwards plant, after thirty days in a winter room, standard country hams move to a spring room, where they spend two to three weeks at fifty degrees. Summer begins in a windowless, hickory-smoke-choked, cinder-block chamber, where hams hang for a week, hock down, in net bags called stockinettes. After that, they spend at least three months in an aging room, suspended from tall pinewood racks. Wigwam hams, on the other hand, spend at least a year aging, giving them a silky texture and complex flavors and making them indefinitely shelf stable.
After tasting his first $1,500 Iberico and accompanying his friend the importer on a ham-sampling tour of Spain, Edwards set out to improve upon his grandfather’s signature ham. Instead of buying conventional pork, he began ordering the meat of Berkshire pigs, a heritage breed that resembles the Iberico and is beloved for its fat-marbled flesh. Edwards’s reasoning was simple: “If you put butter in a recipe, half a stick makes it taste good, but two sticks make it even better.” The pigs came from Patrick Martins, who had contracted with Missouri farmers to raise the Berkshires humanely and without hormones or antibiotics. While the farmers sent tenderloins overnight to celebrity chefs in New York and other cities, they shipped the hams to Edwards. Instead of six or even twelve months, Edwards ages these special hams for up to eighteen months, taking them through two summer sweats until they become dense and dry and intensely flavorful. The high fat content of the Berkshires makes the longer aging possible. He calls his new high-dollar product Surryano ham, a playful combination of Surry and Serrano.
Inside the Surryano aging room, the thick air smelled sweet and sour and smoky all at once, like a bacon-sizzling Sunday morning intensified a hundred times over—the same smell Edwards’s baby sister used to assume was their father’s cologne. Thousands of hams hung like giant mahogany chrysalises. The skin glistened as their weight pushed diamonds of flesh through the net bags. According to a handwritten date on the tag, the ham hit the salt in July 2009, making it more than thirteen months old, with more time needed before it could be sold whole for $180, in four-ounce packages for $9 apiece, or in minimalist arrangements for $5 per ounce at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar in Manhattan, one of many upmarket restaurants where the ham ends up.
Edwards’s most recent experiments involve hams from an expensive Polish breed called the Mangalitsa, a woolly pig whose ability to fatten up outpaces even the Berkshire. Edwards is also shipping Virginia peanuts to the Missouri farmers raising his Berkshires, to fatten them the old-fashioned way. Before factory farmers raised pigs in cramped metal cages, Virginians released free-roaming pigs into peanut fields after the harvest to root up leftovers. “What I’m doing is identical to the way my grandfather did it,” Edwards said.
“My father and grandfather were sticklers for the details of what we do,” he added, before driving an ice pick into the heart of a ham, removing it, and sniffing the end. “We use sense of smell and touch and eyesight and taste to tell if hams are ready.” Friends and regular clients would ask his grandfather to pick a special ham, and he would mark those with a blue crayon. Though the business has grown since then—it sells fifty thousand hams a year—Edwards still considers it small compared with the industrial food giants. “I don’t carry a blue crayon,” he says, “but if you called me and said your daughter was getting married, I might still pick a ham for you.”
After we left the Surryano room, we approached a table where a woman was slicing Surryano hams for packaging. Edwards handed me a slice. It was delicious—salty and smoky, with an apple-like sweetness and the earthy aftertaste of an aged cheese. “All I want,” he said, “is for people to try our ham and taste the difference.”