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If ham is on your Christmas menu, read on. Our distinguished trio of experts tried and tasted eight of the nation's best hams. Pat Nourse delivers their verdict.
Can too much ham ever be enough? This was one of the questions
our intrepid panel asked as we conducted a blind tasting of
award-winning hams from all over Australia.
Chef Jeremy Strode, Master Butcher Gerhard Feiner and Australian Pork's Mitch Edwards were also asking some tougher questions, though. "Is the skin of the ham split anywhere?" asks Feiner. "Cooking a ham on the bone takes eight or 10 hours, so that can be a problem," he says.
Is the smoke colour even on the surface? "We don't want it lighter here and darker there; we want a nice even colour," says Feiner. "That's more about aesthetic choice than an indicator of eating quality, though the darker the ham is, usually the stronger the smoke flavour."
How pink and even is the colour of the meat? "Not too pale, a good even redness. The evenness is the thing, because it tells you if it's been cured properly and not rushed. No greyish-brown spots."
Is the knuckle sunken? "That's when the ham is cooked or hung in
such a way the knuckle sinks into the ham. It looks awful."
Has the ham been brined with care? Nowadays, the brine is usually injected into the muscle under pressure. With too much pressure, or a misplaced needle, you can end up with uneven saltiness, and pockets of brine between the skin and the meat.
No one wants a watery ham. "It shouldn't be soaking wet and it shouldn't be rubbery-dry," Feiner says. "It should be moist, and you should be able to discern the fibres of the meat."
And, of course, how does it taste? "Nothing should dominate the pork, not the salt or the smoke or sugar - just a mellow, lovely meaty flavour with a hint of smoke."
All the hams were legs on the bone. Australian quarantine regulations only allow for the importation of ham if it's boneless, which means that buying ham on the bone (along with the pink PorkMark logo) is your guarantee that you're buying a local product. And how are you going to make pea and ham soup when you're done with it if there's no bone?
Here, starting with the highest-rated hams, are our tasters' findings.
1 Zammit Ham & Bacon Curers, Pendle Hill, NSW
"On first impressions, that's a nice-looking ham," says Strode. "A gorgeous golden colour and a great shape," says Edwards. "Nice and smooth and even, nice and round, no blood clots," adds Feiner, and points out that it looks attractively juicy even as it's being sliced. Feiner scores it very highly. The word "masterpiece" is thrown around - the taste is in balance, the texture correct, and there's plenty of the flavour of the meat. "I think it's spot-on," says Strode.
2 Sunshine Meats, Milperra, NSW
Feiner thinks this ham is a bit too dark for the average consumer, "but that's not necessarily a mistake, it's personal preference". "And you know when you're buying a ham that dark, it'll be on the smokier side," Edwards says. The flavour of the meat is - unsurprisingly - bold, strong and smoky, but is still rated highly by all the tasters. "The eating quality is right up there," says Feiner. "Personally, I love it," says Edwards.
3 Aussie Smokehouse, Warana, Qld
The panel is unanimous in rating this ham highly for its appearance, which Edwards describes as "nice and plump". Strode says the texture is drier than he'd like, and he notes some variation on the cure in the cut slices of meat. All the tasters comment on its appealing aroma.
4 Newbury & Watson, Mount Barker, SA
Edwards rates this ham as highly as any in the tasting. "It's pleasantly smoky, the texture is good. I want my ham to have moisture present when I slice it, and I like the shine you see when you're cutting this one." The colour is judged positively all round. "Not too pale," Strode says, "and just the right level of smoke. It's got a taste that lingers, too, in an appealing way."
5 Bertocchi, Thomastown, Vic
The skin on this ham is fissured in parts, our tasters observe, and it's patterned in a way that suggests it has been smoked on a rack rather than hanging. "Nice and smoky and a little bit sweet on the nose," says Edwards. The meat is a nice, even pink, but its texture raises some flags. "It seems a bit over-brined to me," says Strode. "You're starting to lose the texture there. I think there's too much sugar and salt."
6 Sharman's Butchery, Wivenhoe, Tas
The tasters note that the meat and skin have pulled away from the bone at the hock, that the ham is flatter than is ideal, and that it shows some blood clots. The responses to its taste are varied, with some slices deemed salty, prompting discussion about the evenness of the cure, but it's unquestionably full flavoured. The texture is considered favourably by all the judges. "The texture's quite good," says Strode, and he adds that he likes the fat coverage.
7 Andrew's Choice, Laverton North, Vic
"It's quite a hairy ham," says Strode, referring to the bristles around the hock of the ham. There's some sunkenness of knuckle, and the smell is deemed sweet - a strong sweetness that carries through to the flavour of the meat. "Has the injection pressure been too high?" asks one of the judges, pointing out a briny pocket just under the skin. "It's good. A good dark pink colour in the meat," observes Feiner. "Very much close to the ideal that we're looking for."
8 Peter Bouchier, Toorak, Vic
"It looks uneven and patchy on the outside," says Strode. Some of the skin has been folded in parts, and it's split around the knuckle. It's a strongly scented ham, which wins the approval of all the tasters, but it's also considered the saltiest of the hams. Strode notes that though the texture is uneven around the edges, the meat in the core is well textured. "They've also taken the aitchbone out," says Feiner - the ham is still on the leg, but the pelvic bone appears to have been removed to make for easier carving.
Storing your ham
• Soak a ham bag, pillowcase or tea towel in four cups of water and two tablespoons of vinegar.
• Wring out excess water and put your ham in the bag or pillowcase, or wrap it in a tea towel. Store it in the coolest part of the fridge - ideally below 4C.
• Every three days or so when it starts to dry out, rinse the bag or tea towel and dip it in the water and vinegar solution.
How to carve a whole leg ham
Step 1 Place ham skin side up on a cutting board. Then run a small sharp knife under the rind around the end opposite to the hock and each side of the ham to about halfway up. Peel back the rind.
Step 2 Run the tip of your knife around the bone, on the underside of the ham and begin to slice on a slight angle down towards the bone.
Step 3 Run your knife lengthways along the bone to remove slices. Continue to slice towards the hock.
Step 4 Slice your way around the ham until you reach about a third of the way up then remove the bone by making a few short cuts at the joint.
Step 5 To keep your ham fresh, fold the rind back over the exposed meat, put it in a ham bag or pillowcase, or wrap it in a tea towel and store it in the fridge.
Watch Australian Pork's Mitch Edwards' tips for how to carve and store your Christmas ham.
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