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'Taste My Prosciutto,'
He Said With a Drawl

by Dana Bowen

Rufus Brown looks up and observes his hams. They are hanging by the hundreds in neat rows high above him. After climbing stairs and crossing a creaky catwalk, he finds the one he is looking for, up near the roof, where he put it last year. With a poke and sniff of the hard, musty ham, he decides it is ready: by tomorrow, it will be sliced thin and tucked into panini by customers.

This aging room, its pine beams slick with a half-century of fat, looks as if it belongs in Langhirano, the breezy hill town in the northern Italian province of Emilia-Romagna, where prosciutto di Parma undergoes a long curing.

But this isn't Italy, and these meats aren't drying prosciuttos. It's Smithfield, N.C., and they are long-aged country hams.

Mr. Brown is one of the few small commercial producers who still hang country hams for longer than six months, rendering the meat dark red and velvety with a complex flavor similar to that of prosciutto.

"More and more people are eating my hams like prosciutto," said Mr. Brown, 36, who became cure master at Johnston County Hams when his father, Jesse, died in 1996. "Of course, that's not how it's usually eaten here," he said softly.

Country hams from the South never used to be eaten uncooked. Traditionally, they have been soaked to remove some of the salt from their cure, and then simmered in a sweet liquid like ginger ale, or even cheap Champagne, to neutralize the emphatic salinity.

Producers like him have realized that their hams have been leading double lives as pricey prosciutto look-alikes. The hams have been spotted in the raw at Ben and Karen Barker's Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., cavorting with deep-fried Roquefort-stuffed figs, and at the Inn at Little Washington, in Virginia, cooked with black truffles and fontina on Patrick O'Connell's signature pizza. "If you put a big, thick, salty slab of country ham on the plate here, people don't know what to do with it," said David Page, the chef and an owner of Home, a restaurant in the West Village in Manhattan, who toured Kentucky back roads for artisanal country ham (and bourbon) in November. "But when you shave it thin and describe it as American prosciutto, they begin to understand what it is."

Mr. Page wraps tissue-thin, uncooked slices around sweet pickled watermelon rinds: a Southern rendition of Italy's prosciutto and melon.

Candace Cansler, executive director of the National Country Ham Association, a trade association in Conover, N.C., said that the birth of interest in prosciutto-like uses of American country ham could not have been better timed. The production of country hams has held steady at six million annually for the last five to seven years, Mr. Cansler said. Many small producers have gone out of business, and large ones are making more hams than ever before.

Until the 1950's, many rural Southern families slaughtered their own hogs and cured their own hams. Today, few Southerners can recall the savoriness of those country hams. With changing tastes, only the fiercest fans can palate the pungency of the once-coveted two-year ham let alone the sight of it, furry with mold.

All country hams are by definition dry-cured. But many now taste more like so-called city hams found in supermarkets those that are brine-cured, sweeter-flavored and easy to cook.

"Country ham has been stigmatized as a Southeastern food," Ms. Cansler said. "We're going to have to give it another name if we want to go for gourmet something that suggests a prosciutto-style product."

While in Italy the word prosciutto just means ham, to American country-ham producers it has come to symbolize the profit potential of their own products.

"We've grown an average of 20 percent each year over the past seven years," said David Biltchik of Washington, who advises the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, which accounts for 90 percent of the $50 million to $60 million worth of Italian prosciutto sold annually in the United States.

Sam Edwards, a third-generation country-ham producer in Surry, Va., has noticed the growth in prosciutto sales.

"We can learn a lot from our European cousins," he said. "They're selling their hams for $20 to $30 a pound." His hickory-smoked Wigwam Brand whole country hams on the bone, aged about a year, cost about $4.50 a pound.

Joe Amadee, a distributor for Sermara Enterprises, an American company that sells Italian equipment used to salt and to dry prosciutto, said he has outfitted more than a half-dozen country-ham producers. "People who understand the prosciutto process realize it's pretty much the same as the country-ham process," he said.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department agrees. The same regulations govern all dry-cured hams produced in the United States, whether country or prosciutto style. Dry-curing with salt helps prevent bacterial growth, making the hams safe to eat uncooked.

The regulations leave room for stylistic differences. Italian or domestic prosciutto is covered in salt for 10 to 14 days before it is hung to age, as compared with standard country hams' 35 to 50 days in salt. While imported prosciutto must age 400 days, the domestic equivalent generally ages nine to 12 months. Prosciutto is never smoked, like some of its country-ham cousins.

The biggest difference between country ham and prosciutto is how they are eaten. Since country hams have always been cooked in the Southern states where they are cured, most country-ham producers do not consider them ready-to-eat meat like prosciutto. Thus, the Agriculture Department requires that labels on uncooked country hams contain safe-handling and cooking instructions.

Nancy Newsom Mahaffey's country-ham business in Princeton, Ky., run by her family for 86 years, is old-fashioned: she salt- and sugar-cures just a few thousand nitrate- and nitrite-free hickory-smoked hams a year. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and other chefs have used her sweet-smoky specklike hams.

"My first market is Kentucky, which I consider a compliment," Ms. Newsom Mahaffey said, "but my second is California." For that second market, and for chefs who intend to use her ham uncooked, Ms. Newsom Mahaffey recently started selling her country hams as Gourmet-Aged Prosciutto Ham, even though the label says the customer has to cook it.

According to Candace Cansler, Rufus Brown is the only country-ham producer who labels his uncooked hams as ready-to-eat, which means he must subject them to federal tests for pathogens like listeria. Next month, a new Department of Agriculture rule is expected to make such tests more stringent and frequent, and thus costlier for producers.

The Browns have seen the potential of their hams for years. In the 1970's, a distributor spotted a product that looked liked Portuguese cured ham, called presunto, in a store on Interstate 95 in Selma, N.C., and traced it back to Johnston County Hams. Rufus Brown's father then started packaging a kind of presunto for Portuguese markets in Rhode Island and in Newark, N.J.

Presunto aside, about five years ago a food distributor, Vincent La Capra, owner of Gourmet Goods, in Belleville, N.J., started selling Mr. Brown's longest-aged country ham to upscale delis in Manhattan and Brooklyn to slice raw like prosciutto. Last year, Mr. Brown made it official: he started selling "prosciutto-style boneless ham."

"It's my same ham, just older," he said, explaining that it was aged for eight months or more rather than the usual three to six months. He vacuum-packs paper-thin slices in eight-ounce packages and sells four packages for $28 three times as much as he gets for his younger country ham.

These fat-rimmed, rosy slices look but do not exactly taste like prosciutto. Robust and slightly sweet, with a lingering smoky salinity that tickles the tongue, they distill the best qualities of his long-aged country ham.


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