Thursday, June 25, 2009
At a dinner party hosted by Sky Full of Bacon's very talented Mike Gebert a few months ago, I was served (among other delicacies) ham biscuits. Which, if you just do a quick google and look at, say, cooks.com, you'll see are just simple little biscuit sandwiches of sliced ham.
These were not just simple little biscuit sandwiches of sliced ham, though. They were amazing. Biscuits made with lard Gebert had rendered himself, part of his homemade bacon process, a country ham from Father's in Kentucky, and home-canned preserves to slather on the delicate yet rich biscuits before adding a thin slice or two of the smokey, somewhat funky ham. This elegant little sandwich literally melted in my mouth, and the ham made a strong impression on me.
I managed to latch onto the tag from Gebert's ham, which sat on my desk for a couple months. My intention was to order a ham from the same purveyor and try and replicate it for myself. I never got around to doing that, but as part of a recent road trip, I incorporated a visit to a different producer of country hams named Finchville Farms in Finchville, Kentucky.
Finchville Farms is a small, family-owned operation run by Bill Robertson, whose family has been operating it since its inception in 1947. I sat down with Mr. Robertson before we embarked on a tour of his facilities and, as we talked about ham, we both eventually asked the same question aloud, incredulously--"why not?"
See, we were taking about country ham as opposed to European cured ham products like Italian prosciutto or the Spanish jamons Serrano and Iberico. And we both wondered why American country hams haven't yet attained the same success or recognition as their European counterparts. I didn't have an answer. Part of the reason it's taken me a month or so to write this article is that I've been trying to come up with one.
For me, as a chef, I was always somewhat bewildered by country ham. I never worked with it, so didn't really know the process. I knew it needed to be soaked in changes of water for a few days, and then roasted like a "regular" (read; saline-injected commercially processed) ham, and the resulting product would have a firmer texture and a more pronounced flavor than the standard spongy salt nibbles that turn up in our everyday omelets and deli sandwiches.
But I'd never tried it, so I just wasn't sure. And could it be thinly sliced, raw, and used in elegant presentations as a homegrown stand-in for prosciutto? I'd never seen it done that way and it seemed like everything I read about country ham was a cooked preparation like Gebert's , so, again....it remained a mystery.
Bill's answer (that's him to the right, in his office at Finchville) was, yes. "Sure, you can eat it raw, thinly sliced, like prosciutto," he said. "But nobody does. "
Country ham is most often seen as "steaks"--thin leg cross-cuts with a round slice of the bone in the middle--and these are cooked quickly on a griddle or in a pan and served alongside eggs, toast, and hash browns for $3.95 at gritty little neighborhood diners throughout the South and Midwest. When I've had it this way, though, I haven't cared much for it; it's usually kind of tough and stringy and too salty.
So that's more or less where I've always been on it; I'm a big fan of the European cured ham products, sliced thinly and draped over cool, juicy melon slices or ripe figs, but I haven't been much for American hams, whether the clove-studded, pineapple-ringed, Dr. Pepper-glazed, spiral-sliced Easter variety, or the more gourmet-sounding, but still disappointing country ham.
I appreciated Mr. Robertson's hospitality and generosity, for sharing both his time and products (My intention was to purchase a whole ham, like the ones seen sitting on his store countertop, but Bill steered me towards the ready-to-eat or cook products and laid a trunkload of samples on me). I've tried a bunch of different ones, but I'm still don't think I'm fully appreciating or understanding the appeal of this product. The only really amazing experience I had with it was at Gebert's dinner party.
Maybe part of it is how Gebert cooked his ham, I don't know. Another factor to consider is the varied styles of curing and processing. Bill at Finchville doesn't use any nitrates or nitrites in his hams, only salt and sugar. Some producers add spices or herbs, or use different types of sugar like brown sugar, molasses, or maple. Oh, and Finchville hams aren't smoked, either. Most that you'll find are, like the Father's ham I had at Gebert's gathering.
The process varies enormously from one maker to the next, but the essential steps are that a fresh or "green" ham is dry cured for a period of 3-5 weeks, then is rinsed and hung for a longer period--usually 8 to 12 months. At this point the ham can be used, or it can be smoked. The smoking can also be done prior to hanging. Some ham producers wrap the hams in muslin during the hanging process, others leave them naked to the air.
Obviously this process was developed prior to refrigeration and these methods were originally motivated by the desire to preserve fresh meat. Pig slaughters were usually at the beginning of the cold-weather months as a way to further prevent spoilage, and the various parts of the animal would be cured, cooked, smoked, and/or hung so that the cooler temperatures would prevent spoilage during the crucial point, and once the warmer weather arrived, the hams would be sufficiently cured to last through hot summer.
In fact, the summer is said to be beneficial to the flavor of the country hams. Like cheese and wine, ham is a product of its environment. As they hang, the hams are exposed to hot temperatures on summer days, but cooler evenings, and this temperature fluctuation is said to be beneficial for the flavor of the meat. Locals speak of the "July Sweats" as crucial to a country ham's flavor development. Native molds form on the outside of the hams as a reminder that this is a living process, and white specks of concentrated protein, similar to what's found in superior long-aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, appear in the meat. Essentially, this is controlled spoilage.
But, hey, controlled spoilage is where it's at. Beer, wine, stinky cheese. Spicy kimchee, sauerkraut.
So the ham I got from Finchville is more or less exactly the same as what they make in Parma, Italy...I'm thinking. Why can't it be served more like prosciutto di Parma is typically used?
Well, I'm not entirely sure that it can't. But the intended end use needs to be considered while the product is being processed. That is to say, if a country ham producer set out to make Kentucky Prosciutto, they'd have to employ a different process. The current products are heavily salted, because the end users are going to soak them in changes of water, and then either roast or boil in more water. If the ham were going to be served raw, sliced paper-thin, the salt content would have to be scaled way back, so as to allow the end product to be less salty and also softer and more full of moisture than current country hams, which are like rocks. Typically, prosciutto is left to cure for 15-20 days, while country ham sits soaking up salt for 35-50 days.
The other thing is that Finchville uses commercial pork. I asked Bill about it when I noticed some Swift boxes near the dumpster, and got a waved a hand in the air as a response. This appeared to be Bill's way of acknowledging to the heritage pork movement, so other than mentioning some of the attention heritage breeds are getting from Chicago chefs, I didn't press him about it.
European hams are all made from pigs from the particular region, and the pump-it-full-of-hormones-and-saline-and-get-it-to-market-weight-in-half-the-time American factory farming model has, for the most part, been rejected in Europe. So, like with heritage breeds, the meat of the European pigs has a more fully developed flavor. It's fattier, and of a superior quality.
Now seems like a great moment to mention La Quercia, which appears to be doing just exactly what I just described over in Iowa, and their products are now being carried and touted by just about every pork-loving chef in Chicago.
So, after plunging headlong into this project, I find myself with more questions than answers. I'm kicking myself for limiting my experience with Finchville's products to the pre-fabbed steaks and ham biscuit slices, wrapped all tight and shelf-stable in their cryovack packs, and not bringing home a whole ham, as I'd planned.
Is the main reason that country ham isn't utilized similarly to prosciutto simply that it hasn't traditionally been done? American country ham producers have always included pre-cooking as a part of their process, and almost always market convenience products, like the ones Bill graced me with. As a result of the cooking being such a prominent part of their process, the USDA requires all uncooked country ham products to carry a label bearing cooking instructions, including the suggestion that pork always be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°.
So partly, it's a matter of it's always been done this way, and the government suggests that it continue to be done this way.
Technically, however, the USDA has no opinion about whether country ham can be eaten raw. They have not taken an official position. And the country ham producers haven't asked, for fear of having some stringent requirements slapped on them. So the mystery continues.
So, the next logical step for me is to buy a whole ham. Whether from Finchville, Father's, or somewhere else. There are now tons available through internet mail-order. And then maybe get one from La Quercia and do a taste test to compare how the various hams taste raw. Oh, and I'll need a profressional deli slicer to do these fine products justice.
Yup. Next time I've got a spare thousand bucks laying around, I'll be sure to do that. I guess that's part of the reason there hasn't been more experimentation with these products...the entry costs are high.
S0, there you go. Lots of valuable info about a traditional American product, some taste tests, a visit to the producer, an interview with the guy who runs the company, and still, the answer to the question that Bill and I asked in his office remains elusive.
"Why not"? I don't know.