Country Mamas

Small purveyors are bringing back the country ham

Country hams, with their firm, mold-speckled exteriors, may not be as inviting as their brine-infused relatives, but these salty, dry-cured meats are the grand cru of pork products.

Purists should seek out hams that have been aged at least a year (never mind the mold; it can be removed), but many purveyors offer a milder, younger version as well.

You can simply serve country ham uncooked–or for a thoroughly Southern preparation, pan-fry a hunk of ham, then deglaze the pan with coffee to make redeye gravy–and don't forget the hot biscuits and grits.

Here are three of our favorites from Virginia, the state that does country ham best:

Calhoun's Country Hams Tom Calhoun's Culpeper, Virginia, storefront (pictured) looks like a relic from the past, but his pungent, smoky hams are made using modern technology: Temperature-controlled rooms allow him to make country hams that have been lauded by chefs like Alice Waters. If you make it to the shop, Calhoun's ham biscuits–thinly sliced ham sandwiches on yeasty rolls from Knakal's Bakery–are a must.

Kite's Hams Jim Kite inherited the recipe for his special cure from his father–and he's keeping it in the family. Compared to other hams on the market, Kite's hams tend to be meatier and leaner. The six-month-aged Happy Ham offers more mild flavor, while the Kite Ham–aged for up to a year–packs a stronger punch.

Surryano Ham In Surry, Sam Edwards has been making his Serrano-style ham since 2004, though the product is really a spin-off of the hams his family has produced since the 1920s. The latest vintage, made from spotted Berkshire pigs fattened on Virginia peanuts, is aged for 18 months, which yields ham that is less saline, with a sweeter, richer taste.