Even before I opened the box, the aroma of smoked meat drifted into the kitchen. My order from Col. Bill Newsom’s Hams had arrived from Tennessee: country ham, hickory smoked bacon, and smoked sausage tightly packaged and yet still redolent of the smokehouse. I wanted to dig right in.
Salted and Cured by Jeffrey P. Roberts put me in the mood for southern smoked meats. Roberts, a culinary historian and teacher, writes about the culture, heritage, and flavor of America’s preserved meats. I followed his journey across the upper south – Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee – as he visited smokehouses, told the stories of the families behind them, and sampled their traditional products.
Country Hams are cured – covered in salt and a touch of sugar – and aged for months under controlled temperature and humidity until they are naturally preserved, a process not unlike making prosciutto in
Italy or Serrano ham in Spain. Some are smoked a little, others smoked a lot. Each smokehouse has its own distinctive method, recipe, and flavor.
The hams dry naturally, dropping a significant percentage of their weight during aging to achieve the genuine country ham texture. They’re nothing like the ham you bake for Easter or enjoy in a deli sandwich.
My smoky box was from Newsom’s Old Mill Store, home of Col. Bill Newsom’s aged country ham. Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, granddaughter of the founder, is preserving the traditions and high quality of this more than 100 year old business.
Nancy and her small crew rub the hams with salt and brown sugar (but no nitrates) and shepherd them through the curing, aging, and smoking process. She evaluate the variables including weather and humidity to judge when the hams are at their peak, just like farmstead cheese makers or artisanal wineries. Her lifetime of experience sets Newsom’s hams apart.
Newsom’s hams are well smoked, as are their bacon and bulk country breakfast sausage. When you open the package, it’s like stepping into the smokehouse. Nancy recommends sawmill gravy and fresh baked biscuits to round out a hearty country breakfast.
The box from Newsom’s was their Smokehouse Meat Sampler, with two raw slices of Newsom’s country ham, one roll (2 pounds) of Newsom’s smoked sausage, two pounds of Newsom’s sliced smoked cured bacon, all for $60 plus shipping (about $15).
What distinguishes these products is the quality of the ingredients, the care with which they’re made, and the traditions behind them. It’s like the difference between wild caught king salmon or farm raised, free range or industrial turkeys, just-picked local strawberries or the ones from four time zones away. They’re authentic, old-school, and hand-made, with a distinctive sense of place.
Smithfield hams are the best-known American cured hams. To be called Smithfield, they must be cured, start to finish, in the town of Smithfield, VA. But some of the best Smithfield-style hams are now being made about 25 miles away by the Edwards Virginia Smokehouse in Surry, VA.
Another multi-generational family business, Edwards pioneered the use of heritage breed hogs to maintain the traditional taste and texture of cured hams. As commercial pork became leaner (“the other white meat”) Sam Edwards, Jr. worked directly with farmers to get Berkshire, Tamworth, and other heritage breeds that have the higher-fat content and marbling needed for world-class hams.
Edwards hams became the darlings of chefs and connoisseurs until a fire in 2016 destroyed their smokehouse and entire inventory. They’re back in business now and rebuilding their inventory of aged hams, but it has taken time.
I ordered the Edwards Smokehouse Sampler: 12 oz. of old-fashioned, hickory-smoked sausage Links, 12 oz. of sliced, hickory-smoked country bacon, and 12 ounces of the classic uncooked country ham slices for $60 (shipping included). Edwards meats are more delicately smoked than Newesom’s but packed with rich pork flavor. The sausage links and bacon cooked up brown and crisp; both were mild and flavorful. Red eye gravy is the recommended way to finish off Edward’s ham. They also have a bacon sampler – with hickory-smoked country, smoked peppered, and dry-cured Maple – which might be my next order.
If you don’t want to sit down to a platter of assertive, salty, smoky, country ham, keep it in mind as a marvelous flavor ingredient for favorite recipes. Dice some into lentil soup, cube it into scrambled eggs, let it season risotto or anything else you’re cooking up where you want a flavor boost.
When you hear “country ham” it may bring to mind twangy singers with big hair or big hats, but let’s not stereotype either the region or the ham. What should come to mind is a world-class, dry-cured, robust, smoky ham, unique to America. Order your own sampler box of these exceptional smoked meats. The aroma alone is worth the effort.