It all started when one of my colleagues called me over to speak to an American lady, now living in London, who had called for advice: “Is your York Ham the same as a Virginian Country Ham?”. Er… I had heard of Country Ham of course, I knew that the States have a fine heritage of traditional ham cures, and that Virginia was known, stateside, as the home of Ham; however, being on the phone to this lady brought home to me the paucity of my knowledge on the subject, and I resolved to do something about it.
A bit of research, and I discovered that probably the best authority in the world was Sam Edwards III, of Edwards’ Virginia Smokehouse in Surry, VA. I tentatively reached out to him (turns out LinkedIn does have its uses), unsure whether he would be hostile to another ham producer prying into his trade secrets. I needn’t have worried; a more generous spirited person would be hard to imagine, and we quickly realised that not only did we not compete at all (neither of us aspire to export across the pond), but that the similarities and the differences between our two nations’ ham traditions could provide both of us with huge potential for learning a lot.
It was the work of an instant, therefore, to book Sarah and myself onto a flight over to DC, hire a 4×4 SUV (thank God, more of that later), and head off for our first visit to the Southern States.
Surry lies just across the James River from Jamestown, in that area of the States familiar to any student of the War of Independence, with local towns as steeped in history as Williamsburg and Yorktown. I’ll guiltily admit that my familiarity with Jamestown came as much from watching Disney’s Pocahontas with my daughters when they were younger! You may remember from the cartoon that the eponymous heroine spent her days “paddling round the river bend” in the skimpiest of buckskin shift dresses. Well, all I can say is she was tougher than me, or it wasn’t filmed in February. As we set off south on I95 from Washington towards Richmond storm clouds were gathering, and the outside temperature started dropping like a stone. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the apparent need for every American family to drive such huge, over-specified SUVs, but I couldn’t have been more happy to be in one that evening. By the time we reached our B&B it was minus 15 and there was 18 inches of fresh snow everywhere, and still coming down fast.
Our accommodation that night could not have been finer. Hornsby House Inn, a beautiful colonial style house overlooking the York River was grand yet homely, and most importantly warm. We braved the snow to visit a seafood bar where shrimp, clams and fresh oysters fresh from Chesapeake Bay were accompanied by a few cold beers and a confusing number of ball games from the several TVs on each wall.
The next day we woke refreshed to a magnificent breakfast in the company of our host Dave Hornsby; every preconceived expectation of a proper “southern” breakfast was fulfilled. Grits? You got it. Bacon and pancakes drenched in maple syrup? Of course. Dave was genial company, and eager to ensure our first experience of southern hospitality lived up to its reputation. “What, you’ve never been to DC?? Well, you MUST go and see congress. Hold on while I call my friend Senator so-and-so, I’ll ask him to show you round…”. A little disappointingly our tight schedule meant we weren’t able to fit in all the delights that Dave wanted to bestow on us, but I would definitely recommend Hornsby House to anyone looking to stay in the area.
Our mission this time was all about the ham though, and we had a rendezvous planned with ham supremo Sam Edwards III. Sam’s grandfather (S. Wallace Edwards) started curing country hams in 1926 and selling sandwiches on the ferry across the James River. S. Wallace Edwards Jr., born in 1930 took over in turn and the smokehouse grew, along with the range of products. The business is now run by Sam Edwards III, ably assisted by his son (you guessed it – Sam Edwards IV).
We had to cross the James River by the self-same ferry to reach Surry, and found Sam’s operation – a collection of large old farm buildings in open country without difficulty. The snow had stopped falling by now, but under a beautiful blue sky the temperature stayed resolutely frigid around -12 c.
We clicked with Sam immediately; like me, he has a deep interest in hams, and we were soon exchanging experiences and anecdotes, comparing curing methods and generally quizzing each other about the intricacies of how we each produced a very similar range of products, the challenges we face, and how we had tackled themselves. It was soon apparent that the similarities far outweighed the differences. The main point of interest is that Sam’s Country Ham, whilst eaten cooked, is generally sold as an uncooked product to be sliced and cooked at home. Our most comparable product, the Dukeshill York Ham, is dry cured an aged in a very similar way but the vast majority are cooked by us before being sold and, I suspect, are eaten cold more often than hot.
I was a bit jealous of Sam’s number plateWe are both great experimenters, and one of Sam’s more recent ventures has been his take on a Spanish Serrano ham – christened with Sam’s playful punning as the “Surryano”. This is simply a Country Ham which he allows to mature for a full 12 months so that it can be sliced very thinly and served raw like a European prosciutto
I could have chatted for hours, but we were keen to see the operation in close up, so we donned white coats and hairnets and ventured forth into the main production area. It was interesting to see how many similarities there were between Sam’s operation and our own. I suppose that traditionally cured hams have been around for centuries, so it is unsurprising that the time honoured methods that we have learned from our shared ancestors are still in use today; for instance, his method of dry salting the legs of pork was virtually identical to our own.
We were struck immediately by a huge difference is the production environment. In the UK, our zealous EHOs have an inbuilt horror to anything made of wood, whereas Sam’s factory was full of the stuff. He (and his forbears) had designed wooden racks from which the hams are hung to mature, and in the main, cavernous “maturing shed” there were literally hundreds of racks, festooned with thousands of hams. The smell was intoxicating (and very familiar, just like our own drying rooms). Sarah and I joked with Sam about how lucky he was to not have British EHO’s, but quietly exchanged with each other that it all looked a bit of a fire risk.
When Sam showed us their smoking kilns, our concerns about flammability were raised further; his father had designed simple “smoke generators” – basically simple furnaces attached to the outside wall of the shed and fed with shovelfuls of sawdust gleaned from the local woods – the smoke then being ducted into the kilns inside the building.
It broke my heart to hear that just a few months after our visit, Sam’s pride and joy was razed to the ground by a devastating fire. It was a salutary lesson to me that one can never underestimate the dangers of fire, and how the absence of a disaster of this sort for even three generations is no guarantee of what may happen in the future if one lets one’s guard down.
Sadly, the aftermath of the fire has been a difficult time for Sam’s family. Legal wrangling with their insurers has taken months, and although there is light at the end of the tunnel, the site of this wonderful and historic enterprise is still an empty expanse of land. I have no doubt though that the Edwards family, with their resolve to rebuild, will once again be making their fabulous hams better than ever before. In the meantime, Sam and his team have worked hard to find other small producers to help him by supplying product that has enabled him to keep trading, and their website still offers a tempting range of Virginian hams, bacon and sausage, but one feels that this is a poor imitation of what will be available once their own production is once again back on stream.
I find it fascinating to reflect on the differences between UK and US hams and bacon – and even sausages. Our own hams and bacon are available smoked or unsmoked, in the US smoking is more or less a sine qua non. All their hams, all their bacon, and indeed nearly all their sausage is smoked. To the best of my knowledge this preference is country-wide, but why they have taken smoking so much to heart compared to the UK is a mystery to me.
After our tour, Sam and his wife Donna very kindly took us for a tour of historic Yorktown, and we enjoyed a fabulous lunch in one of the many restaurants proudly serving his ham. A classic way to serve the country ham, incidentally, is with “red eye gravy”; this involves cooking a slice of uncooked ham in a “skillet”, and then once the fat and juices have rendered out of the ham, deglazing the pan with a shot of strong coffee.
Edwards’ Smokehouse also has a couple of retail shops, so Sarah and I were able to stock up on some samples of not only their own products, but also some other Virginian specialities to take home with us.
Once our trip to Virginia was over, we headed back to Washington. Unbelievably, the weather then turned even colder. We spent the Saturday taking in a walk past the White House, strolling up the National Mall (it was now a ridiculous -17c), and unsurprisingly we had the Lincoln Memorial almost to ourselves! We were only too happy to dive into the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum to warm up!
We stayed at another delightful B&B in Washington, and were amazed to find, when we woke up on the Sunday, that the weather had turned completely overnight. We found ourselves wandering the picturesque streets of Georgetown in what seemed positively balmy conditions, virtually in shirtsleeves!
I have always had a fascination for visiting food producers. We are fortunate in our jobs that we have the opportunity to see so many, and I will never tire of visiting our suppliers, whether it’s to see salmon being smoked on the shores of a Scottish loch, an artisan dairy creating fantastic cheese, or a farmhouse bakery making cakes. What I don’t get to see quite so often is a business that does more or less the same thing as we do, as food businesses can be a bit funny about letting “competitors” see their secrets. I was so delighted to be able to spend a happy few hours with Sam, and look forward to repaying the compliment when he and Donna next find themselves this side of the pond.