There is ham. And then there are Newsom’s Country Hams of Princeton, KY.
After all, a family that has been curing hams the traditional way since the 1600s is sure to have the method down pat. Even now, this salt and brown sugar-method has changed little since the family first started selling the cured, slow-aged hams at its Newsom’s Old Mill Store in 1917.
Today, it remains the smallest national ham curing business in the country, and one of the few — if not only — to use this old-fashioned method born of necessity when refrigeration had not yet been invented. The process of making these hams takes about a year. Each ham is hand-rubbed, then allowed to cure for a month or so, before being smoked for days on end. Then, the hams are hung again in the smokehouse for months to develop their intense flavor. After about 10 months, the hams are ready. After 11 to 15 months, the prosciutto is done.
“We use old -fashioned methods of using just the salt and brown sugar, and hickory smoke smoldering out of an old iron kettle which fills the whole room from just one small fire, damped with green hickory saw dust,” says owner Nancy Newsom Mahaffey (aka The Ham Lady). “We smoke for weeks off and on depending on the weather. We are the last to still do an ambient weather curing process of circulating outdoor weather in and around our hams for the full duration of time from the time they are out of salt as the spring is warming, going through the hot, dog days of summer, and into the fall when they are finally ready for sale. In fact, our process was born before nitrates and nitrites were even discovered.”
When illustrious chef and food writer James Beard stumbled upon the store in 1975, he was so floored by the flavor of the hams that he went on to use them in his cooking classes and to promote their attributes in his writings. As word spread about these hams, Newsom’s started its mail-order business in 1975 to keep up with the increased demand.
Besides being sodium nitrate- and nitrite-free, the hams are produced only in limited quantities and sold only to chefs and to consumers through Web site and store orders.
Newsom’s also is the only American ham to be on display in a glass case alongside the esteemed Iberico ham in a museum (Museu del Jamon) in Aracena, Spain that’s dedicated to ham. How’s that for impressive ham trivia?
Over the past winter holidays, I had an opportunity to try some of the distinctive porky products made by this artisan company that’s still family-owned. The culinary gods must have smiled upon me, because I won a Newsom’s gift certificate in a contest last year hosted by cookbook writers, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, on their blog, RealFoodHasCurves.
What you’ll notice right off the bat with these hams is the incredible sweet, smoky complex flavor they possess. There’s a head rush of umami going on here. The aged prosciutto ($18.99 per pound), in particular, has almost black truffle and aged cheese-like notes to it. The flavor floods every part of your palate as it just melts in your mouth. It’s just astounding.
Nancy Newsom had cautioned me that some folks find the Aged Kentucky Country Ham ($5.69 per pound) a bit salty to eat just a big slice of. So, she advised me to use it as more of a seasoning ingredient, which I did by tossing bits of the chopped aged ham into fried rice, winter vegetable soups and mac ‘n’ cheese. On its own, it is quite aggressive in salt. But when mixed with other ingredients, it lends a welcome addition as the ham’s smoky, almost sharp cheese-like quality permeates the dish.
The Smoky BBQ Ham ($59.00 for half a ham that’s 7 to 9 pounds) is much less salty than the country ham, with more of the sweetness of the pork shining through. This is a ham that’s made for Sunday supper with big slices nestled on a platter with roasted pineapple or roasted peaches.
Because they’re made in limited quantities in such a painstaking way, Newsom’s hams are not always available just any day you’d want them. But patience has its rewards. And in this case, it’s a treasured taste of the past that won’t easily be forgotten.
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