COLUMBIA, Mo. – Andrew Clarke has a good eye, and nose, for the perfect cured country ham.
At state and county fairs, the University of Missouri meat scientist has logged countless miles judging more than 10,000 cured country hams during the past 23 years.
You might say he has it down to something between an art and a science.
So what makes a blue-ribbon cured country ham? At the top of the list is smell.
“Trying to describe the aroma is not an easy thing to do,” Clarke said. “The aroma must indicate that the ham has the aromatic and mellow flavor associated with aged country hams.”
The tools of the trade to sniffing out the ham’s essence are simple. An ice pick–like probe is inserted into each ham for the judge’s aroma test, which comprises 35 percent of the total score. “Traditionally a sharp bone was used,” he said. “Some of the hams are very hard and you need a sharp implement.”
But, smell isn’t the first item Clarke checks for his score card. He begins by considering eye appeal, including symmetry and conformation. Next comes outside color. Top hams should be bright colored and uniform, which often comes from a combination of aging, spices like paprika and a smoking process if it is desired. Then smoothness of skin (smooth and no wrinkles) is critiqued to score what is known as fitting. Fitting means hams should be free of mold, salt and other residues.
Trim or workmanship should provide a beveled look for a smooth appearance. Firmness and meatiness also play important roles in the judging.
Clarke compares his craft to how a winemaker might determine his best bottles.
“It is kind of like the winemaker trying to evaluate when the wine is ready to go and get bottled up,” he said. “You open a bottle of wine and know from the aroma that it is wine, but is it a good wine?
“It’s the same with ham, although it takes a little more subjectivity in judging aroma.”
In curing a ham, salt is the primary agent, but sugar is added to offset the salty harshness. Other ingredients such as black pepper, red pepper, and ground cloves are sometimes added to give flavor, aroma and color. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is traditionally used to help color development, flavor and preservation. After the cure is applied the process usually takes seven to eight months to complete.
Ham judging continues as a staple at county and state fairs, and provides an outlet for 4-H projects. Some counties even provide an open second category for adults to enter.
Winning hams are often auctioned off at high bids with proceeds going to charities. Most hams weigh in at between 12 and 15 pounds, Clarke said.
The tradition continues to keep alive a part of Missouri heritage.
“Country cured hams are relatively unusual in today’s market but satisfy a link to the past when refrigeration was not available,” he said.