We keep an impressive pile of cured pork legs in the shop. The Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamón are justifiably well-known. Also nestled in there, however, are two domestic treats that I advise you not to miss: Mangalitsa and Red Wattle hams. The latter is particularly American, hailing from a centuries-old tradition of pork curing in Surry County, Virginia.
We source our Mangalitsa and Red Wattle ham from Edwards of Virginia who, in turn, sources pastured, humanely-raised Mangalitsa and Red Wattle pigs from small farms in North Carolina and Iowa, respectively. These heritage breeds are prized for their well-marbled, toothsome, flavorful meat, not to mention a wickedly decadent abundance of fat. Mangalitsas resemble a cross between a sheep and a pig – they’re sometimes called “wooly pigs,” for good reason – and they’re related to the wild boar. Like their boar brethren, Mangalitsa meat is lightly gamey, with a sweet, nutty, intense flavor.
Edwards uses a curing method that mimics the seasonality and recipes of preservation followed by early settlers of Jamestown, located across Cobham Bay from Surry County. Because the newly arrived Virginians were a couple of centuries away from refrigeration, they slaughtered and processed pigs during the winter months. They’d slather the raw meat with salt and then hang it in outdoor smokehouses or barns. The relatively low humidity and chilly temperatures of the season would combine with the salt’s preservative effects to kick-start the curing process and keep the meat safe from spoilage.
Edwards has a relatively small curing facility – 50,000 square feet – but it’s equipped with technology to replicate the weather conditions used by folks of the Jamestown settlement to produce what the company calls “the ham this country grew up on.” The fresh legs are first hand-rubbed with a dry salt cure and then left to sit for a 30-day spell in the Winter Room, where temperatures and humidity are low.
The air in the Spring Room, next stop for the hams, is a balmy 52°F and a touch more humid. Here the meat hangs for 2-3 weeks, and warmer temperatures promote an even, balanced distribution of the salt cure. After this, they head to the smokehouse for a week of cold smoking, a process that imparts flavor as opposed to cooking the meat. The team at Edwards is careful to keep temperatures below 85°F during this process, after which the meat is moved to the Summer Room.
During the “summer sweat” stage, hams are held at 85°F and approximately 80% humidity for three months. This warm push, the last stop before aging, further reduces moisture content and promotes fermentation. Both of these processes yield highly concentrated flavor, which develops further as the hams hang for a subsequent 2-3 years of aging in a cool, dry environment.
The end results of this meticulous operation are marvelously salty, smoky legs, which are hand-boned upon arrival in our shop. Compared to the Mangalitsa variety, Red Wattle ham is slightly smokier and a touch more chewy, much like an American version of speck. Mangalitsa hams are capped with an ample layer of fat that can be an inch and half thick in places—definitely not for the faint of heart. When sliced paper-thin, it’s meltingly tender and deliciously salty, like a ham-flavored butter. In addition to the hams, our Cambridge and South End locations also carry Edwards’ Mangalitsa bacon, which follows a similar curing and smoking process but requires less aging time. Fat on the bellies is equally generous and delicate, and a nibble on a medium thick slice yields an ethereal but intense burst of porky goodness.
Though Edwards hams have become an icon of the South and its distinctly American food traditions, the family didn’t set out to join the meat business. The company’s founder was a ferry operator, and he began selling his family’s cured ham on sandwiches to hungry travelers. They were a hit, and thus a much tastier business venture was born – thankfully for all of us, I’d say.
For a behind-the-scenes peek at Edwards’ curing process, check out this video – the first bit focuses on their process for curing their Surry ham, which comes from Berkshire pigs. Though it’s from a different breed and a slightly different product, it is the same method used for the Mangalitsa and Red Wattle.
Erin Carlman Weber is a cheesemonger, charcuterie alumna and the classroom coordinator at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge. She is currently pursuing a Masters in the Food Studies program at Boston University.