It's the annual battle of the hams. Twenty-plus brined and smoked legs from across the nation were assembled at the historic Lincoln Hotel in Melbourne's Carlton. Once the drinking hole of Bob Hawke and his mates from nearby Trades Hall, it was filled with the aroma of smoke, spice and cured pork. Around the dry bars were gathered 18 of Australia's top chefs, sommeliers, food judges, writers and editors, whose sole job was to sniff, poke, chew and assess the hams.
They were tasting hams blind, knowing nothing about each entry other than what they could garner using their senses. They scored the hams on aesthetics, knocking down points for simple faults such as torn skin, uneven trimming, bristles left in the skin and blotches from where one ham rested against another during smoking.
The hams were marked out of 25 for aroma, the judges looking for a pleasing smokiness without it smelling like bushfire. They also judged out of 25 for texture, flavour and "x factor", arriving at a total of 100.
The panel assessing the hams. Photo: Tim Grey
The kitchen team at the Lincoln carved the hams from three different muscles. Meat from close to the bone showed the judges that the ham was evenly brined and cooked through. A cut from just under the skin highlighted the quality of the fat, an essential vector for flavour. The third slice was from the muscle equivalent ofour inner thigh. Not covered by skin, this area has the deepest concentration of smoke. Smooth and pleasant smokiness is good. Overwhelming or bitter smoke is bad. Importantly, all hams had to be available in Sydney and Melbourne.
Former MasterChef contestant and now food writer Alice Zaslavsky said, "As a food writer, my first question is 'Where is the pig from? Who is the producer?' More and more people are asking about animals ethics. In my opinion, meat tastes better when raised outdoors on pasture."
The line-up included 11 hams from certified free-range or pasture-raised pigs, reflecting growing consumer demand for higher ethical standards. Seven of the hams that made the top 10 were from free-range pigs.
Halfway through the tasting, award-winning sommelier Banjo Harris Plane went rogue and opened a bottle of pinot noir, saying, "ham should never be consumed without wine". He suggested a full-bodied white wine with good minerality or a light red such as pinot noir or gamay.
In the end, there were hams that divided the judges, hams that the judges loved and hams that the judges loathed. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the tasting was that one of the cheapest hams came in at No. 8. While this year's #hamfest revealed a ham for every taste, there could be only one winner.
The winning ham, from Meatsmith. Photo: Tim Grey
1. Meatsmith Rare Breed Traditional Leg Ham
This year's Golden Hog award for the best ham goes to a beautifully presented ham from Troy Wheeler and his team at Melbourne's Meatsmith. This upmarket butchery, specialising in ethically raised meat, is a co-production between this expertly trained butcher and his business partner, restaurateur Andrew McConnell of Cutler and Co., Supernormal, Cumulus Inc, and Ricky and Pinky fame. Twelve of the 18 judges awarded this their highest score, putting it way ahead of its nearest competition. The ham is made from free-range Tamworth pigs whose legs are brined for 72 hours with salt, brown sugar, juniper, caraway, bay and cloves, then hot-smoked over beechwood. Food writer Michael Harden said, "Nice truss work," referring to the string encasing the ham. "Looks like a hipster ham." The proof was in the eating, with rich dark smoke aromas that reminded publican Iain Ling of his upbringing in the north of England. Neil Hargreaves from the Australian Food Awards summed it up with: "A great product. Beautiful smoke. Great texture, perfectly juicy and lingering spiced sweetness."
$34 a kilogram; meatsmith.com.au
Baby Leg Ham by Black Forest Smokehouse Photo: Tim Grey
2. Baby Leg Ham
Second place went to this small but beautiful golden ham made from a suckling pig by Black Forrest Smokehouse for Sydney superstar butcher Anthony Puharich from Vic's Meat. Puharich wanted a quality ham for those "who can't stretch their budgets to buy a free-range or rare breed" ham. Cured to Smokehouse's 100-year-old family brine recipe, whole legs, hoof on, are then hot-smoked for two to three days over beechwood and ironbark. "This is a ham with an amazing honey aroma," judge and winemaker Neil Prentice said. "It has a very powerful smokiness, complex flavour, really juicy and tender. A truly lovely ham."
$16-$18 a kilogram; vicsmeatmarket.com.au
Yarra Valley Smokehouse ham Photo: Tim Grey
Best mid-range ham
3. Yarra Valley Smokehouse Free Range Leg Ham on the Bone
Just two points separated this large, pleasing-looking ham from its nearest competitor. Made from free-range berkshire pigs in Victoria's Yarra Valley, it scored evenly for its attractive curves, even colour and mild flavour. It was noted for its quite sweet meat, light smoke and perfect level of juiciness. "The texture of this is excellent," said Good Food restaurant reviewer Gemima Cody. "It's like eating velvet."
$23.95 a kilogram; rawmaterials.com.au
Gamekeepers ham Photo: Tim Grey
4. Pyrenees Ranges Free Range Ham By Gamekeepers
Another lovely crowd-pleasing ham made from free-range large white pigs, cured without soy or gums then triple-smoked. Restaurateur Edouard Reymond, of Bistro Gitan, said, "A good level of salt with a pleasant smokiness and nice mouthfeel." An overall good ham.
$25 a kilogram; gamekeepersmeat.com.au
Huon Valley Heritage Breed Berkshire ham Photo: Tim Grey
5. Huon Valley Heritage Breed Berkshire Hams
This ham was slightly smaller than the average but still wowed the judges with its presentation. It ticks all the ethical boxes, being certified free-range and fed on a diet that includes seasonal fruit. Smoked over beech and fruitwood, it was described as having a mild flavour but was a little salty for several judges.
$38 a kilogram; wursthauskitchen.com.au
Feather and Bone ham Photo: Tim Grey
6. Feather and Bone Ham
Marrickville Butcher Grant Hilliard goes to great lengths to ensure his suppliers uphold the highest standards in animal welfare, dealing only with pig growers who raise their animals on pasture. He and his team have made a lovely "caramel-coloured ham with pure white fat hiding sweet and subtle flavoured flesh with aromas of honey and malt", Banjo Harris Plane said.
$31 a kilogram; featherandbone.com.au
Barossa Fine Foods ham Photo: Tim Grey
7. Barossa Fine Foods Traditional Ham on Bone
A ham from this South Australian producer picked up gold at the Australian Fine Food Awards this year and won over Melbourne restaurant Ombra's Carlo Grossi, who rated it 81/100. "It has layered flavours and good length." Blogger Suzanne Farrell described it as having a "firm texture, good level of smoke, pretty salty" but "great with a beer".
$18.99 a kilogram; barossafinefoods.com.au
Aldi ham Photo: Tim Grey
Best value for money
8. Aldi Specially Selected Premium Triple Smoked Half Leg Ham
This is a good-looking, well-seasoned and tender ham made from Australian pork for the German uber-supermarket. Evenly cured, with a pleasant aroma and texture, it was without distinctive flavour characteristics, making it a true crowd-pleaser.
$10.99 a kilogram; aldi.com.au
Gamze ham Photo: Tim Grey
9. Gamze Traditional Ham on Bone
Made from free-range pork in Victoria's north-east by butcher Felix Gamze, of Gamze Smokehouse. He eschews preservatives from a packet in favour of naturally occurring alternatives. This powerful-tasting ham split the judges along gender lines, with the blokes liking the powerful porky flavour and the women marking it down.
$39 a kilogram; gamzesmokehouse.com.au
Peter Bouchier ham Photo: Tim Grey
10. Berkshire Free Range Leg Ham
A well-presented ham from respected Melbourne butcher Peter Bouchier, it scored well for looks and texture. It was, however, "way too salty", according to several tasters, which affected its score.
$39.90 a kilogram; petergbouchier.com.au
11. Rare Breed Black Berkshire Kurobuta Leg Ham
Made from a Japanese strain of berkshire for Vic's Meat by Black Forest Smokehouse, this was a large, toffee-coloured, slightly juicy and tender ham with balanced flavour. Another crowd-pleaser.
$29 a kilogram; vicsmeatmarket.com.au
Bundarra ham Photo: Tim Grey
12. Bundarra Berkshire Triple Smoked Christmas Ham
This beautiful-looking ham had a "glorious exterior" hiding superb-tasting and aromatically spiced flesh that was, however, unevenly coloured where the "natural" preservative failed to penetrate, thus failing to score well with the judges.
$39 a kilogram; bundarraberkshires.com.au
13. Hudson Meats Ham on the Bone
Made from female berkshire pigs brined for 52 hours then smoked over black butt and ironbark chips by Sydney-based Hudson Meats. "The strong flavour of the smoke clashes with the sweet flavour of the pig," noted Gemima Cody. Otherwise a pleasing taste and texture.
$26.95 a kilogram; hudsonmeats.com.au
Bertocchi Festival ham Photo: Tim Grey
14. Bertocchi Festival Ham
A dark-looking little ham with sweet, pleasant and slightly nutty-tasting flesh, completely inoffensive and offering good value for money.
$9.50 a kilogram; bertocchi.com.au
15. Coles Half Leg Bone In
"It's sweet. It's porky. I'd like to see it shaved," Gemima Cody said. Some found the flesh a little too moist but, all in all, this is a good-looking, low-cost option from the retail giant.
$10 a kilogram; coles.com.au
Newbury and Watson ham Photo: Tim Grey
16. Newbury and Watson Heritage Breed Bone in Ham
Last year's standout winner offered a ham in 2016 with an uneven skin colour that did not pass the judges' muster. Made from free-range rare breed South Australian pigs by one of Australia's most respected butchers, its flesh was praised for its juiciness and smokiness, with several judges suggesting it would make a brilliant sandwich filling.
$19-$26 a kilogram; feastfinefoods.com.au
Pacdon Park's Gammon, a wildcard at the Good Food ham tasting Photo: Tim Grey
17. Pacdon Park's Gammon
We threw in this wildcard from the NSW Riverina to see how the judges would react to a boiled, glazed and baked gammon. Those who have had Christmas in England loved it. The others did not.
$35 a kilogram; pacdon.com.au
18. Big Pig Christmas Ham
A good-looking ham from free-range pigs cured by Ballarat's Salt Kitchen Charcuterie, the judges found it a little dry and salty.
$29 a kilogram; saltkitchen.com.au
Quattro Stelle Photo: Tim Grey
19. Quattro Stelle Christmas Ham
"A mouse in wolf's clothing," said Michael Harden, referring to its very large size but very mild flavour. It was noted that with its intricate clove-studded pattern in the exposed fat, this ham would be glazed and baked at home on the big day, intensifying the flavour.
$25-$30 a kilogram; quattrostelle.com.au
20. Woolworths Full Leg Ham
Pale, insipid, slightly sweet. "Perhaps a ham better served in school lunches," one judge said.
$7 a kilogram; woolworths.com.au
IGA leg ham Photo: Tim Grey
21. IGA Leg Ham
Points were deducted for marked skin and uneven colour as well as very pale flesh that was a little dry.
$7.99 a kilogram; iga.com.au
22. Mr Darcy's Traditional English Double Smoked Ham
A very good middle-of-the-road ham that would have scored higher were it not for its blotchy skin.
$27 a kilogram; cleosdeli.com.au
Thanks to our judges: Janne Apelgren, co-author, Around the World in 80 Dinners; Gemima Cody, Good Food restaurant reviewer; Suzanne Farrell, ethical meat blogger; Phillippa Grogan, Phillippa's; Carlo Grossi, Ombra; Roslyn Grundy, editor, The Age Good Food Guide; Michael Harden, food writer; Neil Hargreaves, Australian Food Awards; Jane Holroyd, Goodfood.com.au writer/producer; Iain Ling, the Lincoln; Zenon Misko, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival; Banjo Harris Plane, Bar Liberty; Neil Prentice, winemaker, Moondarra Estate; Edouard Reymond, Bistro Gitan; Annabel Smith, Goodfood.com.au writer/producer; Dave Verheul, Embla; Daniel Wilson, Huxtaburger; Alice Zaslavsky, food writer.
The Lincoln's publican, Iain Ling, made sure the best of the leftover ham, some 35 kilograms, went to food rescue organisation FareShare.