In an era when people are working endless hours trying to reduce the actual work time needed to make food and publishing books that brag about being able to complete every recipe in a time period shorter than a commercial free episode of Dora the Explorer, this project took well over a year. As a parent, I understand the draw of found time, but if this isn’t your first time reading these posts, you know my tendency to go the long way.
And this project, my first very own country ham, takes the longest way. There are many real producers of country ham that age their hams 24 months or even longer, but for my first I cut it down after a year, on the nose, of it going up in a friend’s garage. There was temptation, after 6 months, after 9 months, and pretty much every day after that, to cut it down. The real impediment to doing so was that we put three up and I really had not done the research as to which was “mine”. On our first hammiversary (I brought gifts of paper, bread, and vinegar), I broke down and looked at the pictures, I knew where the processing stamp was located. It is, after all. the microchip of hams.
There is beauty in the process. It is long, but it is simple, time-tested and poetic. The best way to end up with great ham is to buy the leg of the best pig that you can afford. This ham was the back leg of a Slagel hog. As a starting point, I cured the leg with the basic country ham cure from Charcuterie. As you can see below, the holes in the perforated hotel pan created indelible marks on the ham that remained a year later.
The leg was then rinsed, equalized and dried then cold smoked for nearly a week over whiskey barrel wood. It was my first turn with the cold smoker. After being infused by smoke with aromas of oak, bourbon, and even a little beer, the cured and smoked legs were packed into a unused organic cotton pillow case and hung in garage. Then the real waiting began.
The hams dried in below zero temps. They dried in temps over 100. The collective funk in this garage is amazing. There is funk flying from ham to ham. Mold and fungus picked up from place to place on any number of hams. I came to visit the hams, you know, to sing and read to them, every now and again. In December, we did a core sample and were really happy with that ham, but wanted to make it an entire year before cutting them down.
The best part about waiting until as year was up was that by that time, I had another pork leg, this time from a Berkshire hog, cured with a simple cure of salt, brown sugar, and black and red pepper, then smoked over bourbon barrel and apple wood. In a year of two, it will be ready. We’ll cut it down and have a party.
As I had the ham cut up into manageable chunks, I also had a bit of it sliced thin. Tasting it was an interesting study in ham. In my recent experience with the franken-ham, the Benton’s ham was a tale of extremes in salt and smoke, this was nearly the opposite. This ham was strong with pork and funk. There was a backbone of salt, but there was sweetness, but the most forward flavor was the pastured pork. The texture was no completely crystalized like some of the super aged hams, but certainly dried enough where it wouldn’t get pressed with the force of your hand. It cut much like, well, a country ham or prosciutto.
There are no shortcuts with country ham. You buy a leg from a pig. It looks like a pig’s leg. You cure the leg for a month. You smoke the leg for a week. You hang the leg for a year. Then it is country ham.