Meatingplace Desktop — November 2015
Change Language:
SURE cure
Lisa M. Keefe

Edwards & Sons has elevated the Virginia country ham to a delicacy enjoyed at some of the East Coast’s finest restaurants (and in a lot of homes).

When it comes to old-school meats, the school doesn’t get any older — in this country, anyway — than Virginia country ham. The rich, salty slab was one of the earliest state exports (along with tobacco) back to England, according to Colonial-era issues of the Virginia Gazette.

No processor has done as much to bring that old school into the 21st century as S. Wallace Edwards & Sons in Surry, Va. With a variety of hams in process, including a dry-aged-18- months variety trademarked the Surryano Ham, third-generation owner Sam Edwards has expanded the Virginia ham market from roadside diners to the finest restaurants from Manhattan to Charleston and beyond.

“You know, a lot of plants you walk into — they’re really proud of the fact that they start off with a ham that weighs 20 pounds and it comes out weighing 20 pounds. But to produce the flavor we’re looking for, yield just almost has to be thrown out the window,” Edwards says, noting that the company’s highest-end product will lose 30 percent of its weight in the aging room. “People wonder why it’s so expensive. Well, it gets that way pretty quick.”

$16.50/LB.
How expensive? Edwards’ baseline cooked bone-in Virginia country ham, aged four to six months, is about $120 for 14 pounds. The mid-range Wigwam bone-in genuine Virginia ham (so named because of the shape of the company’s original smokehouse), aged 10 to 12 months, is about $140 for up to 18 pounds.

But Edwards’ highest-profile products, the whole bone-in Surryano ham, is $230 for up to 16 pounds or, for the peanut-fed version, $280 for up to 17 pounds. The specially designed wooden ham holders, for proper display, are an additional $200 for the “standard” version or $350 for the 90th anniversary edition.

Despite the Surryano’s charcuterie plate-worthy price tag and creamy slices, Edwards is quick to dispel the notion that his offering is meant in homage to Spain’s famed serrano ham products.

“Purists think that we’re trying to knock off the Spanish ham, and that’s not it at all. I’m really trying to duplicate what my grandfather did,” he says.

“My grandfather always told me that [the dry-aging process] was taught to the English settlers by the American Indian because they were doing wild game and fish this way as a way of survival. Of course, my grandfather was taught by his father, whose father taught him, whose father taught him, and so on.

“That’s still the recipe we use today, [although] we probably leave it in salt less time than they did way back when.”

FAT LOT OF GOOD
Edwards’ dry-aging process for its hams begins with the right pork, and that’s no small feat. While he uses commodity pork for his entry-level country ham products, today’s conventionally raised pigs are simply too lean for those hams that hang in the aging rooms for a year or longer.

“Somewhere in the ‘90s when the lean generation hog was really taking over the pork market, as I'm eating our product I'm realizing that, wait a minute, this pig is getting too lean for us,” Edwards says. “It's great for pump. But the flavor that we needed for dry cured meat — it was coming out like jerky. So we modified our curing methods, cut the days and salt way back to kind of get it so it wasn't so dry and salty.”

The adjustments to the process had some mitigating effect on the texture, but also messed with the brand’s delicate flavor profile.

“Ultimately, we realized we needed to get back to pork that had more marbling in it. Look — I need fat pigs. We need 1960s meat.”

At the turn of the 21st century, Edwards found that the small, regional packing houses that were most likely to be able to supply a richer ham for dry-aging had pretty much disappeared from Virginia. He limped along in his procurement, buying what he could from whomever he could, until he connected with Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Martins and his company connect the farmers and producers of rare and heritage breed beef, pork and poultry with buyers, generally high-end chefs and processors such as Edwards. And 15 years ago, Martins had plenty of takers already for his pork bellies and loins, but not enough buyers for his hams.

“So he called me out of the clear blue one day and … told me his story, and I [said], ‘I’ll take them, but I’m not paying a special price for them until I find out if they’re really great.’ The first year we bought them at the same price as commodity, but he was tickled to death because it was a way to get rid of these hams.”

Edwards primarily buys hams from Berkshire hogs, but Martins’ producers also raise Red Wattles, Tamworths, Gloucester Old Spots, Big Blacks and Durocs.

“Sam looked at his ingredient— the actual live pig — and said, ‘I’m going to invest a lot of my money and turn the wheel of my entire organization and support the genetics and the old ways of hogs being raised on pasture,’” Martins says. “He used his success and his position to have a positive impact on farming and agriculture and the world and global warming and antibiotics and medicine in our meats and gastronomy.”

SALT, WATER
Once the hams arrive at Edwards, they are layered in the combo bins with salt for between 28 and 34 days, depending on the size. They are removed and the excess salt is washed away, but the process of salt absorption through the ham — called equalization — continues for months. After rinsing, the hams are hung in a room intended to approximate spring in Virginia, with temperatures in the 50s and humidity in the 80s for two to three weeks.

The amount of time the hams then spend in the smokehouse varies, but could be as long as seven days at a temperature of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then the hams are moved to a room that's warmer and drier — "summer" in Virginia — and the amount of time spent there varies from three months to two years depending on the desired flavor profile. In total, S. Wallace Edwards & Sons processes 1.5 million pounds of pork annually, and dry-cures about 48,000 hams.

Whereas a few decades ago 90 percent of Edwards’ hams were sold raw, now 90 percent of them are cooked and sold ready-to-eat, Sam Edwards says, and that raises the issue of listeria, in particular. So the RTE products, including the Surryano hams, are heat-pasteurized in the package.

“As long as we do all of that correctly, we've had a great record. If we fail in our process — if at the end of the day, the product tests positive — our recordkeeping is such that can you can go, ‘Wait a minute. When you pasteurized it, you didn't follow Appendix A here,’” Edwards says. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it's not a mechanical failure, it's a human who forgot to throw the switch on or didn't set the program up right.”

SLICE AND DICE
Thinly sliced pillows of Surryano ham — hand-sliced on deli slicers — sell for $40 for 12 ounces, and fully half of Edwards’ $8.4 million in sales is through direct-to-consumer sales, primarily the company’s catalog, web store and two retail stores. The other half includes wholesale revenues from restaurants, including McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., Momofuku, Le Bernardin and Union Square Café in New York, and Yardbird in Miami. The remainder is the retail channel, including Martin’s food markets, a few local Wegman’s and other fresh markets, and wine and cheese specialty shops nationwide.

The full range of Edwards’ product sales includes bacon and sausage as well as “city” ham (the pink, pumped variety), turkey, lamb (smoked and dry-cured, as well, for $200 for a 4- to 6-pound leg), brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and seafood and desserts. His smokehouses and aging rooms hold hog jowls and “Dan Doodle” sausage — a regional concoction smoked in a natural casing — along with the ham, bacon and link sausages, and all the popularity has created a problem for Edwards.

“Some of the guys in the plant think we’re at 104 percent capacity,” he says. “Our aging room space — it takes a big footprint to do a small amount of hams because we keep them for up to 18 months. You've got a lot inventory you're looking at for a long time.”

But Edwards, at 59, is reluctant to commit to investing the millions it would take to expand: “We’re at that fork in the road where my kids have to got to make the long-term decisions,” Edward says. “But we’re running too close to capacity. We need more aging rooms to produce the best product we can, week in and week out.”
VIEW ALL ARTICLES
Message
SEND