A Closer Look at Your Christmas Ham

HamHam is one of the traditional main dishes served at Christmas, and it is fascinating to take a closer look at both the history of this favorite piece of meat and the different ways of preparing it.

In The Reluctant Gourmet G. Stephen Jones writes about its origins: …Apparently, serving ham arises from the pre-Christian Norse tradition of killing a boar and serving it to honor Freya, one of the Norse Gods. In AD times, St. Stephen, whose feast day is December 26th, is often depicted as serving a boar’s head as an offering. And, as often happens when diverse traditions converge around the feasting table: Christmas ham was born…”

Its Many Faces

The flavors of hams vary according to where and how they are cured and prepared. Southern style ham, honey baked ham, Italian prosciutto, country cooked, Spanish ham – there is a virtually endless list, and this proves how the whole world has embraced this piece of meat.

Iberico Jamon from Spain

Spanish jamon is not just ham. If it is labeled Iberico Jamon, it is the most expensive ham on earth, frequently priced at over $150 per pound. Yes, per pound! Jamon Iberico is prepared through a process protected by law!

First of all, Spanish hams can only be legally called Iberico Jamon if they come from designated areas in Spain. In Fox News’ Jamon Iberico: 5 Things You Didn’t Know, Simon Majumdar says: “These regions are Guijuelo, Huelva, Valle de los Pedroches, and Extremadura, all in the southwest of the country in the region covered by the Dehesa microclimate. The rearing, slaughter and curing of the jamon is arguably the most stringently regulated of any food on earth.

Jamon Iberico can only come from black Iberian pigs (or cross-bred pigs that are at least half Iberico) fattened on barley and maize after they have been weaned. Once they are strong enough to be set free, they roam through oak groves and forage on grass, roots, herbs, and acorns. The highest grade Iberico pigs are those that subsist solely on these foods; those given commercial feeds are ranked at a lower level.

The curing process of this precious ham can take anywhere from a full year to four years, and this painstaking method results in both a smooth texture and delicious flavor. You need a very sharp knife to serve Iberico Jamon, because it has to be shown given proper respect and sliced thinly.

Country Ham

Country ham is prepared using the “dry cure” method. The bone-in meat is initially cured with salt and nitrate for about three months then dried or smoked. These are usually sold unrefrigerated and packed in cotton bags.

Although country hams in the United States do not have a designated place of origin, the places famous for their product are Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Kentucky. Writing about country hams and their different presentations, G. Stephen Jones says: “ For many, the gold standard of country ham is the Smithfield Ham. To be called a Smithfield Ham, it has to have been grown/produced in or around Smithfield, VA.

To prepare a country ham for the holiday table, there are several steps required. It must be scrubbed to remove all the mold and then soaked for about 12 hours to reduce the salty taste…  You might need to simmer it in several changes of water before baking to make sure that it is not too salty. Even so, country ham is a very salty meat. It is a dry meat and greatly benefits from gravy…”

Chinese Ham

Like country hams, Chinese ham is dry cured and smoked, and like Iberico Jamon, the best Chinese hams are made only from a particular breed of pigs called “two ends black”. Like Virginian hams, they need to be soaked and then simmered in several changes of water. Most Chinese hams have a faint anise-like flavor, and they are to be stewed in syrup and glazed before serving. It should be very thinly sliced; unlike baked ham, and is rarely served whole.

Baked Ham

The variety most commonly served today is “baked ham”, which is cured with a brine solution and smoked. Available cooked or semi-cooked, you need to bake this ham and baste it with a glaze before serving. Baked ham has a soft texture, and is served in thicker slices than Iberico and country ham. It is less salty and is customarily accompanied by side dishes such as scalloped potatoes, green beans, and yams.

In a sense, by serving ham during the holiday season, you will be honoring an age-old tradition – regardless of what type you put on the table.

This year, you may want to explore varieties other than what you have always prepared.  

Give your friends, your family, and your ham the perfect toast by preparing a bottle of Riesling, Rosé, Zinfandel, or Moscato. And if the mood strikes you, open a nice bottle of champagne and simply enjoy!

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