It all started with a ham sandwich.
As I devoured my ham and pimento cheese sandwich in the car, recently purchased from Edwards’ Ham Shoppe, in Surry, Virginia, I thought of all the ham sandwiches that they were responsible for.
That would be about three generations worth.
S. Wallace Edwards was a ferryboat captain in 1926, carrying folks over the James river. He sold sandwiches to his passengers using ham he salt cured and hickory smoked on his farm. By the 30s, it wasn’t just folks going from Surry county over to Jamestown who were ordering these cured hams, but also tourists of the recently opened Colonial Williamsburg, who were having them shipped all over the country.
Sam Wallace Edwards, grandson of S. Wallace, is a third generation cure master.
His family has been dry curing and cold smoking since those ferryboat days. Their methods go back to Native Americans, who taught the colonists how to preserve meat with smoke. Though instead of preserving deer, the settlers took a cue from the Spanish (who brought pigs to America) and went with the widely available (see Hog Island) pig instead. Sam’s father took his grandfather’s three employee operation and grew it to the pig processing facility it is today, selling 50,000 hams a year.
Being just down the road from industrial pork giant, Smithfield, Edwards ran into the problem of being lumped in under the more well known, but far lesser quality moniker. Sam started asking chef’s to put ‘Edwards of Surry’ on their menus when using his hams about the time that folks started becoming more conscious of eating locally.
“If you start off with better tasting pork, that’s going to make a better product 18 months later.” says Sam as we tour the plant. Edwards sources their pork from Heritage Foods a company partnering with a network of farmers who commit to pasture raised, antibiotic free, certified humane, heritage breed animals.
“We go out once a year to the farms to see where and how they’re raised, and what they are being fed. We are trying to help these farms raise the pigs the way we think they should be raised.”
Sam tells me that it’s not always easy to convince farmers that have been raising pigs the same way for generations, taught by their daddy and their daddy’s daddy, that there are better methods to raise pigs. Fortunately more and more farmers are becoming aware of humane, quality focused practices and there is no shortage of suppliers.
At Edwards’ the country hams go through ‘seasons’ replicating the curing process as it was done hundreds of years ago. The hams are buried in salt in the chilly Winter room, then they are moved into a more temperate 50 degrees in the Spring room, after that its 7 days in the Summer room where they are hickory smoked before finally moving onto the 90 day aging process. In some of the rooms I notice hams hanging, separate from the group, and with different tagging.
“Oh that’s just us trying out new things.” Sam says with a definite mischievous look in his eyes. “We are always experimenting.”
“For our Surryano, we like Berkshires. They have the right marbling, the animals are handled better, they are not stressed out. People laugh at me when I say that. But I’ve tasted stressed out pork and there is a difference.”
What is Surryano you ask? It’s a playful name for their version of Serrano ham of Spain. The peanut fed Berkshires go through the curing process and are then aged over 400 days to achieve that deeply concentrated pork flavor. I am the lucky recipient of a package of see-thru slices of Surryano and once home, after savoring at least three slices straight out of the package, I heat a sliver gently over toast at Sam’s suggestion.
The creamy fat melts into the bread, permeating it with a supple smokey salt. The rosy meat does harken to Jamon or Prosciutto but it’s a different, distinctive flavor. Much like many American cheeses that are crafted in European styles but maintain their own American character.
Thankfully, it looks as though the Edwards’ tradition of curing and smoking hams and sausages will continue to be passed down. Sam’s children are still young and have plenty of time to learn the business.
“I can see myself working well past 75” Sam says “Only because, well what’s that saying…You don’t call it work if you like what you do, and I do enjoy what I’m doing.”
You can get Edwards of Surry ham, sausages, bacon, Surryano and their Jowciale (yep, that’s VA guanciale) at their website https://surryfarms.com/index.php and learn more about Edwards at http://virginiatraditions.com/