History, salt, sugar and prayer go into real country ham
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - In the A.B. Vannoy Ham House, on a steep side street off U.S. 221 in Ashe County, N.C., the ham room is upstairs.
To get there, you climb narrow wooden stairs as steep as a ship's ladder. Halfway up, you start to smell an aroma of meat, salt and wood that has been accumulating for more than 80 years.
When you reach the top, you have to move carefully. A ham starts out as 25 pounds of bone, fat and meat. It's a hard thing to bump with your head. From spring until fall, when the room is filled with the latest batch of curing hams, moving around is like trying to cross an attic strung with oversized baseball bats.
The only light comes from a dangling light bulb and deep windows on two sides. Through the windows, you can see the hill that stretches behind the ham house, covered with Christmas trees and thick meadow grasses.
Vannoy hams are all about those windows. These country hams are climate-cured, which means: Open windows. Windows that let in spring breezes and the humid heat of summer.
There aren't many places left that do it this way, letting the hams hang for at least eight months and especially through June, July and August, when heat activates the salt that has been driven into the ham through the cut end of the bone, driving out moisture to stop bacteria from growing.
Byron Jordan, who owns A.B. Vannoy, likes to say his hams have only four ingredients: "Salt, brown sugar, mountain air and time."
In March, I headed back to the mountains, on a drizzly day when cows huddled in pastures tucked into the crooks of the hills. There aren't a lot of tourists here. These are the mountains of working people, where brick houses sit next to tumbling-down homeplaces with caved-in roofs.
North Carolina leads the nation in making country hams, according to Dana Hanson, an associate professor of food science at N.C. State University. Out of about 60 ham processors nationwide, 20 to 25 are here.
But most are climate-controlled houses that use heated rooms to hurry the process or to ensure consistency. The length of curing time, when hams develop deeper, more unique flavors, can vary from 75 days to 18 months or longer.
Open-air ham houses like Vannoy are rare. Hanson believes it may be the only one left in the state. He only knows of a couple of others, one in Kentucky and one in Missouri.
There used to be four ham houses in Ashe County, about 120 miles northwest of Charlotte, N.C. But the other three are gone now, closed by owners who no longer want to wrestle with state regulations and wait months for a product that few people want to buy.
Today, the only ham curers left are Jordan, 55, and his wife, Nancy. Owners of a small restaurant, Smoky Mountain Barbecue, they bought A.B. Vannoy Hams, started in the 1920s, when Vannoy's daughter got out of the business in 1994.
Each year, the Jordans buy more than 1,600 hams, most from pigs raised in the Midwest. They coat the hams in a mixture of salt and sugar for 36 days. They rinse them, wrap them in brown paper, slide them into loosely woven stockings, move them upstairs and hang them. There the hams wait, for at least seven months and as long as two years.
"Folks don't understand," says Jordan. "They'll say, 'Well, shucks _ I can get one at Ingles.'" But they don't know what goes into it, he says, or how long he has his money tied up in these hams. And sales are gradually declining, particularly for whole hams. "The people who know what to do with a whole ham are dying off."
But Jordan knows there's a different world out there, a world that is coming back around to slowly made foods crafted from special ingredients. In New York, ham aficionados pay up to $125 a pound for Spain's Iberico ham and as much as $12 a pound for prosciutto di Parma from Italy _ a long way from the $2.59 a pound Jordan gets for his ham.
He can't ship his hams to New York. His ham house is state inspected, so he can't sell across state lines. To get federally inspected, he's afraid he would have to change his operation, cover the old concrete walls and take out the wooden beams. That, he fears, might change his ham.
But this year, Jordan agreed to work with us on a project. In January, I brought the leg of an old-breed pig raised on Grateful Growers Farm in Denver, N.C., 35 miles north of Charlotte, to A.B. Vannoy. It was coated with Jordan's curing mix and left with the other hams while the salt and sugar worked their way into the meat.
Fifty-seven days later, fighting to see the road through thick fog, I returned to the ham house.
Once the hams are hanging, Nancy Jordan runs the business. She spends a lot of her time in the old ham house, where it's cold in winter and cool even in summer. She fills the ham orders, weighing, inspecting and wrapping the hams and shipping them to the customers.
When customers ...
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