Thursday, August 6, 2009

Visit to a Country Ham Maker

View from the store
Tom Canaday (VP of Wooly Pigs's San Francisco Bay Area Operations) and I visited Johnston County Hams,a maker of country hams. Rufus Brown, the curemaster, showed us his facility, explaining how it works.

From their store, you can see the hams drying (picture at top). In the front, there's the hams from a gigantic pig (over 1000 pounds). They've been drying out since the 1970s and have lost a tremendous amount of moisture. Fat is still dripping out of them.

Johnston County Hams is one of America's last boutique processors of country hams. Country hams are a traditional American food, very similar to Italy's prosciutto, Spain's jamon or Portugal's Presunto. Johnston County Hams has been profiled by the New York Times.

Salted hams

In addition to making country hams, Johnston County Hams makes prosciutto (more dry and aged than the country hams), bacon and other products. One of their hams is sold as a Portuguese-style "Presunto", popular in New Jersey.

I've been eating a lot of their prosciutto today. My pack will certainly be gone before the sun goes down.


As the pictures show, you start by salting a ham (which cures it), then letting it equalize, then dry out. In the salting phase, water comes out of the ham and salt moves in. In the equalization phase, the salt moves into the interior of the ham, curing it. In the drying phase, the product dries out and ripens. Enzymes in the meat break it down during the drying phase.

Equalizing Hams

Johnston County Ham is located in Smithfield, North Carolina. Smithfield is a big name in pork - but the Smithfield people normally hear about is Smithfield Virginia, where Smithfield (the world's biggest pork company) is based. I'm guessing there are close to as many Smithfields in the USA as their are Oaklands.

Rufus explained that Johnston County Hams has benefited a lot from tourists driving down the interstate, who see "Smithfield" and think, "let's buy a country ham, now!"

Drying hams

Johnston County has a very nice rail system for moving around the hams, as seen in the photographs. We were very impressed with the plant and its smooth flow (approximately 80,000 hams per year). They've got a system that's been working for decades.

Our hosts were very hospitable. I'm looking forward to going back to Smithfield. Rufus Brown will be visiting Mosefund's Mangalitsa event in January.


Anonymous said...


We are planning a trip to Florida via the Interstate that you mention. Would you know if anyone could get a tour of Johnston County Hams or do you have to know someone? My daughter is something of a foodie since her uncle introduced her to pata negra.

Boston Kevin

Heath said...

Boston Kevin - If you call 1-800-543-HAMS(4267), you might be able to ask about getting a tour.

I can imagine they'd be able to give you a tour until after New Year's, when things quiet down. Right now is their busy season, when they sell most of their hams.