Ham country's best. Mahogany-colored, salty, unforgettable: Smithfield graces the Southern table.

A GOOD ham is hard to find. Once upon a time you could go to market and find good cured country hams, especially in the South. Today you'll seldom find a commercial ham that has the rich, salty, pungent flavor of those wonderful old-style hams, unless you go to a special source, such as a mail-order catalog. Virginia's proudest gift to gastronomy, the Smithfield ham, is a special mahogany-colored ham cured with salt, smoked, and aged according to a centuries-old method, then boiled, glazed, and baked to a golden brown. It's ideal for the holidays in any part of the country, but it's a must on every Southern table.

Although supermarket, commercial, and country hams all start out as fresh pork, the results are quite different.

The difference between country ham and supermarket ham is the flavor. Today, most people like a milder, sweeter ham, and everybody is too busy to take time for overnight soaking and the other steps that produce an old-fashioned, authentic country ham.

But there's no question that the best holiday hams are the rich, dark-hued, intensely flavorful ones that have been slowly smoked over hickory fires and carefully aged.

Simply but attractively decorated, the country ham on a traditional Southern holiday table is surrounded by dishes of greens, beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, home-made pickles and preserves, and other special traditional dishes.

Curing a country ham is an art passed on from generation to generation, and it's still done the old-fashioned way in Virginia, where early Colonial governors thought enough of their hams to ship them back to England.

The Edwards ham company originated in 1926, when S.Wallace Edwards, the young captain of the Jamestown-Surry ferryboat, first served his passengers ham sandwiches with ham that had been cured on the family farm.

This particular ham was so popular on the ferry that soon the young captain began curing hams on a full-time basis, selling it to nearby country stores and gracious manor homes on the local plantations.

The ferry still crosses the James River today, and passengers can see Hog Island in the distance, named for the pigs kept there years ago by farmers who realized no fences were needed.

``We have a more modern plant in some ways,'' says S.Wallace Edwards Jr., but we still make all the decisions the old-fashioned way -- around the kitchen table.''

Mr. Edwards's wife, Yvonne, works in the company, and their son, Samuel W. Edwards III and his wife, Donna, represent the third generation committed to making fine-quality ham, bacon, and sausage.

All of the Edwardses work at the family smokehouses in Surry, near the spot where the Indians first taught the colonists the secret of smoking.

Over the years, the reputation for fine Virginia hams has traveled far beyond the banks of the James River. Old records indicate that Queen Victoria had a standing order for six hams a week, even though England has always produced famous hams of its own. Sarah Bernhardt had Virginia hams delivered to her in Paris.

In China, a master chef who told me about his famed Yunan ham also knew all about the Virginia country ham and praised Smithfield hams as one of the few American foods of distinction.

Smithfield ham is known as the ``long cut''; it is smoked longer than the country ham and has a different flavor. The length of time for aging and smoking are probably the two parts of the process that make the flavor and texture differences in hams.

But another distinction of a Smithfield ham is that it must, by state law, be cured in the town of Smithfield and its environs. Edwards's hams are cured about 15 miles outside of Smithfield, so they don't carry the famous name.

Not all country hams are alike. The ingredients used in the cure, the type of wood used for smoking, and the hogs' diet make some hams sweeter, saltier, or spicier.

Country hams can be found in several states, starting from Maryland and Kentucky, down through Missouri, Georgia, and Tennessee. They may or may not be smoked, and are dry-cured, as hams from Smithfield are.

``Our hams are salt-cured, smoked for about two weeks, then they are coated with black pepper before being hung on racks,'' young Sam Edwards explains.

When served, the country-cured hams demand more respect than the contemporary commercial pork products, and the choice of other foods requires careful consideration.

A traditional bread that goes with country ham is a special kind of small biscuit called ``beaten biscuit.'' The two are combined as a sandwich and served at luncheons, teatime, and at special occasions.

The rich, nutty pungent flavor of this ham made America famous for ham and eggs, and it made the South famous for Red Eye Gravy, which goes along with hot biscuits and hominy grits.

Ham with Red Eye Gravy, served with hot grits and fried apples, is a breakfast classic throughout the South. But at holiday time, baked ham is more special.

An elegant way to serve the whole ham is to have it boned, and then stuff it with fresh greens and seasonings.

(Write for mail-order price list to S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, PO Box 25, Surry, VA 23883; or for phone ordering call toll-free 800-222-4267. In Virginia, call 804-294-3121 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Stuffed Ham, Southern-Style 1 whole country ham 1 1/2 cups ground biscuit crumbs 1/2 cup minced celery 1/2 cup minced onion Crushed red pepper, to taste Heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Use a sharp knife to cut incisions at intervals into meaty part of ham. Spread cuts open and push in stuffing made by mixing other ingredients together. Sprinkle stuffing over ham. Bake until golden. Southern Ham Steak 6 whole cloves 1 slice country ham, 1-inch thick Freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup honey 1 cup sliced cooked parsnips 1/2 cup sliced cooked sweet potatoes

Press cloves into ham surface. Place ham in lightly greased baking dish. Mix water and honey and pour over ham. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Cover and bake 45 minutes in oven preheated to 325 degrees F. Remove from oven and add parsnips and potatoes over ham. Increase temperature to 350 degrees F. and bake uncovered 10 minutes until vegetables are slightly brown. Serves 4. Red Eye Gravy

Remove ham from roasting pan or skillet and add 1/2 cup ice water to the drippings, letting it bubble until it turns red. Some cooks use black coffee, others stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar before adding the ice water, letting it caramelize. Stir while simmering and cook to desired thickness. Pour over slices.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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