Hello, I’m Jess, and I’ll drop everything to report on great charcuterie. When offered a seat at one of the most magical tables in New York one night last week, I canceled a date, left work early and smushed myself into the last few “available” inches of a Brooklyn-bound L train for the Great Artisanal Ham Tasting at Heritage Foods USA Warehouse in Bushwick. Not that tables in Bushwick aren’t usually magical, but these were loaded with 20 or so kinds of cured ham: country, Ibérico and prosciutto from rare heritage breeds around the world. But the belle of the ball — the point of the ball itself — was country ham. Don’t wind it around cantaloupe or asparagus, simply inhale the aroma and enjoy straight. Maybe with a little of Momofuku’s red eye mayo, which was also in attendance, along with chefs Lauren Hirschberg (Craft), Matt Rudofker (Momofuku Ssäm), Mark Ladner (Del Posto), Mike Anthony (Gramercy Tavern) — plus writers Florance Fabricant, Peter Kaminsky and plenty of other notable food folk.
Third-generation country ham curemaster Sam Edwards, along with food historian and all-around Renaissance wizard Dave Arnold and Heritage Foods USA/Heritage Radio founder Patrick Martins, hosted a vertical blind tasting for 35 of New York’s most discerning palates. The goal: to establish the lexicon for the first cured ham flavor profile wheel. Charts exist for coffee, wine, beer, whiskey and cheese — why not for one of the most varied, complex and storied ingredients in the American larder? The American larder was built on country ham, which is its own product and neither better nor worse than the imports you may be used to. It’s a beast of its own.
“I don’t really see us in competition with the European hams,” says Edwards, one of the foremost authorities on cured ham in the nation. “It’s more of a great opportunity for chefs to offer their guests a wonderful product with nuances and flavor profiles unique to what we do in the United States.”
Meanwhile, a strong, salty, porky ham aroma filled the Heritage Radio space — strong enough to waft down the street, get back on the L and ride it to Bedford for some prosecco.
The vertical tasting allowed for comparison of attributes I’d never considered at-length: presence and size of fat caps — the layer of ultra-flavorful snow-white fat on top of each slice; younger, porkier legs versus older, more fermented-tasting ones; and especially the presence of crunchy little “crystals,” enzymes that aid in the fermentation process which Edwards assured us were “a very good thing.” We reset our palates with sorbet and continued til the end, when our notes were collected to be scanned and data-harvested. Here’s what the team came up with. Now, would you like to taste buttery molasses notes or are you looking for more of a silky textured wood flavor, possibly with a hint of macadamia nut? Because there’s a ham for that.
While some offerings in the blind tasting stood out as being forwardly Ibérico or Parma, others were difficult to classify. Staving off palate fatigue towards the end (yay grapes!) I struggled to discern lean Tamworth from tender Red Wattle, Benton’s from Newsom’s, Serrano from Surryano and peanut-fed from acorn. Kidding. Of course I can tell peanut-fed from acorn. What’s Surryano, you ask? It’s Edwards’ unforgettable rare-breed heritage country ham, a play on “Serrano,” that pays homage to their home base of Surry, VA.
“I think the evening was a great platform to further educate folks that there are some truly great dry-cured, long-aged hams being made in this country,” he said. “We’ve already seen a trend within the fine dining community that supports what we’ve known for a long time: domestic hams measure up to the best in the world.”
Best in the world, indeed. You should have seen Edwards’ face at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival when he heard what Ed Lee does with his Kentucky country hams after the meat’s finished.
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