Dry cured hams have been produced throughout southern Europe for centuries. Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have highly valued hams employing a variety of breeds and curing methods.
This tradition of dry cured hams migrated to the Old South of the United States in the 17th Century, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas. The well known smoked hams from peanut fed pigs were produced in the Surry and Smithfield areas. The resulting hams from the several countries vary widely in flavor, aroma, texture and quality.
Country-style ham in America is a specially cured and smoked ham that is traditionally prepared in rural sections of Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont and other states. "Country ham" refers to a style, rather than a location.
Traditionally hogs for these hams were fed beech nuts, hickory nuts, acorns and fruit to produce more flavorful and tender meat. This is seldom the case today. They are dry-cured in salt, smoked over fragrant hardwoods, and aged at least six months. These hams are meant to be cooked before eating, and require of 24-48 hour soaking in water to leech out the excess salt.
On the whole, Spanish ham usually has a more uniform texture, more intense flavor and is usually less moist than other cured hams, because of the long curing stage. This is especially true of hams from acorn-fed Ibérico Bellota pigs.
The following is a random sampling of some of the better known of the the hundreds of other European and American cured hams:
Alentejo ham is an Ibérico ham from Portugal. It is similar to Spanish Ibérico ham, although somewhat smaller. The breeds are closely related, the pigs are raised on the comparable Portuguese dehesa as they are in Spain. The open forest grasslands with acorn-bearing cork and holm oak trees are critical to their development.
Ammerland ham is a wet-cured, boneless ham from Germany that has been cold-smoked with beech wood and juniper berries.
Ardennes from Bayonne is an air-dried, salt cured, uncooked ham from Belgium, which is sliced thinly for serving and has an appearance and flavor that is similar to Italian prosciutto ham. Thicker cut slices can be pan-fried.
Bigorre ham is made from free-range Gascony black pigs, an Ibérico breed, which is raised in the Pyrenees Mountains in France.
Black Forest ham is a moist, boneless German-style ham made only from the top and bottom round. It is smoked over pine and fir and coated with beef blood to give it a black exterior. Very lean and tender, it is fully cooked, weighs 4 to 6 pounds, and is often sliced thin and used for sandwiches.
Irish ham is produced in Ulster near Belfast. It is pickled and smoked over peat fires in order to achieve a unique flavor. The Irish ham is prepared as you would an American country ham – soaked to remove excessive salt and then cooked.
Jambon cru (raw ham) or Jambon du pays (local ham) is a generic designation for French hams from Alsace and Vendée. They weigh in the neighborhood of 15 lb, and some of the Alsatian hams may be smoked.
Jambon sec (dry cured ham) is a designation for hams from France that meet a minimum weight and are dry cured for at least 3 months. Hams in this category include hams from the Ardennes, Auvergne, Bayonne, Laucaune, Najac and Savoie. Jambon sec supérieur denotes hams such as Bigorre, that are from pigs raised and processed by traditional methods in France.
Prosciutto di Parma is the true prosciutto, a superior Italian ham from northern Italy's province of Parma, the same area noted for Parmesan cheese. The special diet of chestnuts and whey derived from the cheese-making process that Parma pigs enjoy results in an excellent quality of meat. Parma hams are seasoned, salt-cured and air-dried but not smoked. They have a rosy-brown flesh that is firm and dense. Before dry curing many prosciutto hams are coated with lard and cured for at least 10–12 months, yielding a smooth-textured, slightly salty ham.
Prosciutto di San Daniele is a guitar-shaped Italian ham produced in San Daniele, a picturesque village of 8,000 located in northeastern Italy between the Alps and the Adriatic. Its micro-climate alternates between dryness and humidity which contributes to the prosciutto’s salty-sweet flavor and almost creamy texture. It is cured for at least 12 months.
Smithfield ham has been produced in America since the Colonial times of the 17th Century, and is defined by legislation. According to the 1926 Statute passed by the General Assembly of Virginia, “Genuine Smithfield hams [are those] cut from the carcasses of peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the State of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the State of Virginia.” These gourmet hams have a deep red meat that is dry and pungent. Modern Smithfield hams are not necessarily peanut fed.
Speck Alto Adige is a distinctive lightly smoked dry cured ham from Italy which has a unique hybrid of flavors. Its delicate aroma and defining taste are the result of the incorporation of two distinct gastronomic preferences in Europe. One is the smoking methods of the general area of the north of Germany. The other is the salting techniques of the southern Mediterranean regions, such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. The result is milder than northern smoked hams, yet stronger and less sweet than ham produced in southern Europe.
Virginia ham is a country ham from the United States, produced in states including Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. The ham is produced from Berkshire black pigs raised mostly on corn. These pigs have a high proportion of marbling fat, and are cured up to a year. Some of the best hams are smoked over hardwoods like walnut, oak, maple or apple. A long salt curing phase necessitated by the local climate makes the final product very salty – up to three times the salt of a Spanish Jamón Serrano. Therefore in preparation cooking and serving, it is soaked for over 24 hours in a bath of pure water and then either roasted or simmered
Westphalian ham is gourmet boneless ham produced from pigs raised on acorns in Germany's Westphalia forest. The ham is cured before being slowly smoked over beech wood mixed with juniper branches. The combination of the gourmet diet, curing and smoking results in a dark brown, very dense ham with a distinctive, light smoky flavor.
York ham is the quintessential English ham. Dry cured and matured over a period of at least ten weeks, it develops a wonderful depth of flavor and a firm yet succulent texture. The curing process means that the York is somewhat drier and saltier than the Wiltshire. This mild-flavored ham has delicate pink meat which is a favorite in Spanish tapas bars. In England, it is traditionally served with Madeira sauce.