The curing of pork leg has a long history and traces back to ancient traditions. One of the most important prerequisites for the development of civilization was the preservation and storage of food. Drying, smoking, and curing were some of the earliest methods discovered by the ancients, and many credit the Chinese as being the first people to record curing raw hams, while othesr have cited the Gauls. It cannot be argued though that it was certainly a well-established practice by the Roman period. Cato the Elder wrote extensively about the “salting of hams” in his De Agri Cultura tome around 160 BC.
Jump ‘ahead’ to the early settlers of Virginia in the 1600’s, where the “magic white sand” or “salt”, as we know it today, was obtained by boiling and evaporating the salt from sea water and using it to cure the plentiful swine that inhabited what came to be known as “Hog Island” near what is now the town of Smithfield.
This preservation technique evolved over the centuries to incorporate the different seasons of the Mid-Atlantic, utilizing the winter, spring, and summer temperature variations to create a cured ham that yielded superb flavor. Our current day methods still mimic these ‘seasonal’ practices, utilizing modern day temperature and humidity regulation in our Curing, Drying and Aging rooms here in Wayne County NC.
Winter aka the Curing Room:
As soon as fresh hams arrive at our operating facility, we hand massage each one with our proprietary cure mix of salt and sugar, and stack the hams on top of each other to help press the excess water out of the muscle. Within a week, we re-apply the cure mix, and re-stack the hams in reverse order so that the top hams are on the bottom and vice-versa, ensuring equal pressure to all hams. Large producers use machines to apply the salt mix, but any artisan Cure Master knows the importance of a skilled hand when it comes to applying the exact amount of cure mix. Temperatures are kept below 40 degrees F throughout the Curing stage.
Spring aka the Drying Room:
Once the cure mix has penetrated down to the center of each ham, we rinse off the excess cure mix, and hang the hams on ham ‘trees’ and move them into the Drying room, also called the ‘Equalization’ room. Although many producers have removed this step, we see it as a vital part of the entire process as it gives the hams a chance to breathe prior to going into the warm rooms of Aging. The Drying process also allows the cure mix to ‘equalize’ throughout the ham, and the cool, spring-like temperatures and arid environment enable any lingering moisture to evaporate before entering the final stage of Aging.
Summer aka the Aging Room:
From Drying, the hams are moved into the Aging room, where the hams will remain for the longest of the three stages. It is during this final stage in which hams will continue to lose moisture by “sweating”, the dissemination of fat throughout the muscle fibers, which then retain the aroma they have acquired. A combination of warmer temperatures, stringent humidity controls, and varied air movement combine in order for the hams to continue to undergo the biomechanical processes initiated during the Curing and Drying phases, enhanced by microbial flora, which give the hams their particular aroma and final flavor.