A Tale of Two Hams

Jonathan Harris | November 2014

Fall is the time for feasting, for people and also for a few lucky pigs! Across Spain people are celebrating the harvest of nature’s bounty, from wheat to almonds to wine. At the same time, small herds of black pigs are wandering the rangelands of western Spain feasting on sweet acorns which fall from cork and holm oak trees. 

This magical rangeland is called the dehesa, and it has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Depending on the year, the quantity of acorns can be such that the black Ibérico pigs gain an astonishing two pounds per day. On that note, I hope our friends in Spain are seeing as many acorns as we are in Virginia! Every year I pay my daughters a penny an acorn to remove them from our garden, and I am worried I will go bankrupt at this rate.

A wonderful coincidence for our family is that we live just a stone’s throw from the historic capital of artisan cured ham in America – the town of Smithfield. It is amazing how similar the traditions of pig raising and curing in the Smithfield region are to those in Spain - or at least they were until recently. A few generations ago it was typical for small herds of pigs to be set loose in the famous Virginia peanut fields just after the harvest was gathered. The pigs trotted around the fields with their farm-mates, rooting out the rich, sweet peanuts that were missed by the farmers. While I have never tried a ham made from peanut-fed pork, I imagine it added a level of flavor that we can only wish for nowadays. 

Sadly, most of the artisan producers of Virginia country ham have been bought up by the big pork conglomerates. And the ones that remain mostly use factory-raised pork that is genetically altered to grow fast and lean. (Have you ever heard of a bigger contradiction in terms than "lean pig"?) But there is one notable exception – a third generation, family owned company in Surry (just down the road from Smithfield) called S. Wallace Edwards and Sons.

In 2001 we received a couple of visitors at our store in Williamsburg. Mr. Edwards Sr. and his son, Sam, wanted to meet the people who were offering cured country hams from the other side of the Atlantic, and at five times the price of a Virginia ham! Of course they meant Serrano ham, which we had just brought to the American shores a few years earlier. 

This was the beginning of a friendship between the two families that has affected each of our companies to this day. We found that both of our families cared deeply about the quality of traditional hams - not only in how the hams are cured, but also the quality, breed and treatment of the animals that produce them.

Soon after their visit to our store, Sam Edwards began a project to create a Virginia ham borrowing from the Spanish method of curing. In so doing he hoped to rediscover the origins of the famous Virginia ham and bring to the market a domestically produced ham that was on par with the excellent hams of Europe. In fact, he accompanied my brother, Tim, on a trip to Spain to visit the countryside and tour some ham plants. Sam learned that to replicate this traditional Spanish way of curing, he needed a ham with a lot of intra-muscular fat that would age for well over a year, therefore he did not want to use industrial pork. Instead he sought out heritage breeds, like Berkshire, that have more fat and better marbling. He then had to find farmers that would allow their animals to freely range in the pasture and provide them with the exercise needed to work all that delicious fat into the muscles.

After a few years of experimentation Sam introduced his "Surryano ham," lightly salted like Jamón Serrano, but with a delicious smokiness following the Surry tradition. This wonderful marriage of Virginia and Spanish traditions is now served at fine restaurants across the country, and Sam is rightly lauded as a pioneer in the world of artisan ham making.

We decided to return the compliment a couple of years ago: Smoked, baked ham is rare in Spain, and though common in America, they are not usually made from the best pork, so why not combine the best of both ham traditions? We worked with Sam Edwards to create the first smoked Ibérico de Bellota ham in America, somewhat similar to lacón, the traditional cooked ham of Northern Spain. Using fresh acorn-fed Ibérico pork from Spain, he created a juicy, marbled, hickory-smoked masterpiece that can be baked and served for dinner. We named it our Tender Smoked Ibérico Ham. 

As our relationship continues, and our involvement with Spain deepens even more, we dream of new ways to cross-pollinate the traditions of Spain and Virginia. Together we created a smoky artisan cooking chorizo that is now a favorite of customers across the country. Another project we are working on is close to my heart – Cecina de León, the delicious smoked cured beef typical of northern Spain. This delicacy cannot be imported into the US, so why not begin a new tradition here?

I am always amazed at the lasting traditions of classic Spanish foods, best represented by the people who make Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. They are committed to preserving their heritage, from the exceptional Ibérico breed to the ancient dehesa rangeland. Their commitment to quality is abundantly clear when you taste the resulting ham.

And we are excited to be working with a partner here in Virginia who has that same passion and enables us to share the bounty of both traditions with our customers. Our family wishes you a warm gathering and a delicious harvest feast this Thanksgiving.

- Jonathan Harris