Virginia Ham has been famous since the 1700’s in Colonial America when settlers began shipping these hams back to England along with tobacco as the New World’s first exports. Here in Surry, we are just a few miles from where it all began and the history has been talked about around my kitchen table for generations. I have been told over the years it all started something like this:
When the settlers landed in 1607 and established the first permanent English settlement in the New World, just surviving was the first order of the day.
As the story goes, hogs were brought on ships from England so they would have pork to eat in the New World as hogs were not indigenous to that part of the globe. They kept these hogs on “Hog Island” in what is now part of Surry County, Virginia. The island is very small and rich in natural foods for the hogs. Whenever the settlers needed pork they would go to Hog Island, hunt down the hogs and bring the meat back to the Jamestown fort just a mile or so across the James River. Typically they would cook the meat over open fires for survival. The remaining meat that was not eaten in the first 12 hours needed to be preserved in salt for shelf stability.
Some say the Powhatan taught the settlers how to preserve wild game and fish using sea salt and heat to dry the meat so it was shelf stable. Some suggest it was also a European influence or curing knowledge from Spain, Germany and Italy that aided in the curing secrets of the day…again just to survive.
These curing methods have been handed down for hundreds of years; coupled with the fact Virginia is located at the right longitude and latitude to provide a natural environment conducive to producing great cured meat made with the right combination. Temperature, airflow, humidity and curing knowledge is the key to producing great dry cure meats and Virginia was smack dab in the middle of the right terroir to produce this fine delicacy for people from the homeland. The settlers would send these special Virginia hams back to England in trade for other goods and money.
Ok, so now we have the knowledge and the environment but how has this process survived all of these years?
Since Virginia Ham was in demand from what is now Jamestown as well as Surry VA, coupled with the fact that the colonies were spreading north, south and west, Virginia ham production became common to most regions of the South since the environment play such and important role in curing meat. Again, until there was refrigeration this was mostly a way to survive. It has only been since refrigeration that people made this product just because it tasted good. One more key factor in making Virginia hams famous was the introduction of peanuts as a popular crop. After the peanut harvest, hogs were allowed to roam the peanut fields to graze what peanuts were left in the field. This gave the Virginia ham a richer flavor and somewhat oily texture. In my opinion that is when the dry cured and aged Virginia Ham popularity took off.
Since that time, there have been curing method changes, alterations to hog raising techniques and even folks outside of Virginia making “Virginia Ham” but truth be told there are only a few of us left that make a genuine Virginia ham like they did in the 1700-1800’s.
Sometimes the best marketers become more recognized as the best ham producers but not staying true to the roots of the Virginia
ham. The truth is, it should be the companies that stay true to the nuances of how to cure the hams that should be recognized as the best with consistently the best flavor. The best Virginia hams are not about making more hams faster or cheaper to make more money. It is about producing the best flavor consistently and staying true to the process.
By the way there is no USDA standard of identity for a Virginia Ham. You can even make a water added city ham in NJ and call it a Virginia Style ham.
Anyway…watch what you are doing and pay attention to the label. Ask for a sample before you buy to make sure you are getting the real deal not some water added piece of pork.