Expect to pay more for your Christmas ham this year. Pork prices have risen 10 to 20 per cent over the past year, meaning you need to get the best ham for your buck. Butcher Andrew Vourvahakis from Andrew's Choice in Yarraville in Melbourne's west says there is a national pork shortage and prices are escalating.
"With the low Aussie dollar, there are 747 cargo planes filled with pork flying to Asia all the time, which is helping push a lack of domestic supply. This and the fact that pig growers have been leaving the industry for the last five years means pork is more expensive."
Whole legs, unlike fillet and belly, are a lesser loved cut, often frozen throughout the year and defrosted before Christmas to be processed into ham. Our aim was to find the best ham from cheapest to dearest, with prices in between in a single blind tasting. The hams ranged massively in price from $6.99 a kilogram to $39 per kilo.
They came from across the country. Twenty-two legs of cured pork. They were sniffed, prodded, admired and derided, contemplated and, finally, tasted. At the end there could only be one winner, a ham good enough to win the coveted title of Good Food Christmas Ham 2015. To judge the hams we assembled a tried and trusted crew of tasters.
Preparing the hams was British-born chef and co-owner of Kirk's Wine Bar in Melbourne's CBD, Ian Curley. He sliced small portions of the three different muscle groups, one near hock, the mid leg and the larger muscle near the top side. The three different muscles have different densities, and different flavours taking on the brine. When cutting, Curley noted differences between the hams, with some shedding more water than others and some with soft, smooth fat and others with harder flesh that broke into pieces.
The hams were judged on looks, aroma, taste, texture and X factor. Kirk's Wine Bar full-time charcutier Simon Poole told us that, "plump hams look great but can be a sign they are pumped full of water and agents used to hold the water in the ham."
"Sometimes a skin that collapses a little may not be as attractive as big, fat ham, and it is technically a fault, but it is a sign that it hasn't been over-pumped." He advises looking for small bubbles or hollow pockets in the ham, as these are sign of added sugar fermenting in the meat. "Sugar is a sign that butchers have added a lot of salt and water retainers. Sugar is needed to balance out the salt.
At our tasting, he pointed out a gash in the skin of one of the hams done prior to smoking. "There's nothing wrong with it," he explained, "It's not going to present well if you are presenting it, such as glazing it." The Age Good Food Guide editor Roslyn Grundy added that a ham is the highlight of the Christmas table. "A bad ham can ruin Christmas."
The tasters then worked their way tasting all the different hams. Some of the hams polarised the tasters, with one taster berating one ham as being a "bogan" ham, to which another taster took offence. "It was one of my favourites."
Some of the hams were hard-smoked, some with traces of smoke, some were watery, some dry, some were cured with nitrate derived from plants and one used no nitrite and nitrate at all. In the end, one ham stood out, winning over a majority of the tasters and bringing them together to praise its quality.
The hams, scored out of 20, appear in the order they were tagged and tasted.
1. Black Forest Smokehouse Premium Ham on the Bone
"Plump and gold, middle-of-the-road, but its beauty is that it won't offend anyone at the Christmas table," said meat commentator S.J. Farrell. With a pleasant, mild smoky aroma from native ironbark, this attractive-looking ham was made to a traditional recipe by Black Forest Smokehouse in Marrickville, Sydney.
NSW only, $14.99 per kilogram, blackforestsmokehouse.com.au
2. Terry Wright Heritage Rare Breed Berkshire Leg Ham
An impressive-looking ham that was well trimmed but which failed to wow the tasters due to its watery flesh and "industrial" aftertaste. Made from pork from Berkshire pigs raised in the Northern Rivers area of NSW.
NSW and Victoria $23 per kilogram, terrywrightfinestpremiummeats.com.au
3. Bangalow Sweet Pork Bone In Leg Ham
This large, dark ham with "beautiful smoke colour" is a ham for those not afraid of flavour, with elements of roast-pork flavour as well as the full flavour of ham hot-smoked over organic pecan chips. Made in the Northern Rivers region of NSW by Bangalow Sweet Pork.
NSW only, $21.99 per kilogram, sweetpork.com.au
4. Kaczanowski & Co Smokehouse Leg Ham
This ham looked "perfect to the point of looking like a prop from The Flintstones," said restaurant reviewer Gemima Cody. Its plump, golden exterior hid lovely, deep-flavoured, rosy-pink ham that was well balanced in flavour and texture. It will be a good foil for some mustard and a little of the gravy served with the turkey. Made from Queensland pork by Kaczanowski & Co in South Strathfield in Sydney.
NSW only, $14-$20 per kilogram,kaczanowski.com.au
5. Feather and Bone Certified Pastured Pork Leg Ham
"A salty, smoky and broody ham," said Hilary McNevin, describing this firm, golden and mildly smoked ham. It was not over pumped with water and nicely salted. Made by ethical butcher Grant Hilliard from Feather and Bone in Marrickville, Sydney from free-range pork from one of seven growers with whom he works.
NSW only, $28.75 per /kilogram
6. Byron Bay Rare Breed Black Berkshire 'Kurobuta' Leg Ham
Score: 14/20 EQUAL THIRD
With gold pink skin and lovely classic shape, this ham's flesh had a "prosciutto-like attractiveness" according to Michael Harden. But it also had a powerful smoky aroma that inspired Christmas memories for winemaker Neil Prentice. This ham was made from Kurobuta Berkshire pigs for Australia's most upmarket butcher, Victor Churchill in Woollahra, Sydney.
7. Quattro Stelle Christmas Leg Ham (bone in)
Score: 14/20 EQUAL THIRD
An attractive ham with trotter on and skin removed and fat criss-crossed, spiked with juniper berries and ready for glazing. Distinctive but beautiful seasoning was balanced by a touch of honey, giving sweet and well-seasoned flesh finished with apple and beech wood smoke. Made by the team at Quattro Stelle in Belmore, Sydney it is a ham "screaming for a glass of sparkling shiraz".
NSW and Victoria, VIC. $18.99 per kilogram, quatrostelle.com.au
8. Coles Half Leg Bone In BEST BUDGET HAM
Although a little dull looking, the tasters found this ham universally pleasant, with one taster calling it a favourite and another saying "this is entirely smashable". Made for Coles with Australian pork.
NSW and Victoria, $7 per kilogram, coles.com.au
9. Peter Bouchier Ham on the Bone
This large and very attractive ham was described as "an excellent example of consistent, everyday ham with even smoke distribution and balanced flavour," by Kirk's Wine Bar's Simon Poole. Made in Moorabbin, Melbourne using Otway Pork, by award-winning Peter Bouchier.
Victoria only, $22.90 per kilogram, petergbouchier.com.au
10. Mr. Darcy's Particularly Good English Style Double Smoke Leg Ham
A Christmas ham is a lot about looks, and the obviously damaged skin took a swag of points off this otherwise large and well-made ham with nutty fat and flesh best suited for salt lovers.
Victoria only, $27 per kilogram, cleosdeli.com.au
11. Andrew's Choice Ham on the Bone
A beautiful, large, plump golden ham redolent of beechwood smoke that was marked down because it shed a lot of water when sliced. "Can you juice it ?" quipped one taster. That said, it had an "old-fashioned ham" taste. Made by award-winning butcher Andrew's Choice in the western suburbs of Melbourne.
Victoria, $19.95 per kilogram, andrewschoice.com.au
12. Greenvale Farm Leg Ham
If you like sweet ham you'll love this. With a strong porky flavour, mild smoke and aromatic finish it was the pale colour of the ham that gave it its low score. This is from Greenvale Farm at Willaura in Western Victoria and is made from free-range pigs and processed without artificial chemical nitrate or nitrite.
Victoria only, $32 per kilogram, greenvalefarm.com.au
13. Donati's Smoked Ham
Score: 14.5/20 SECOND PLACE
Issues such as broken skin and uneven smoking were made up for in the scoring on aroma, flavour and mouth feel. It had a "smoky and virile aroma" according to Michael Harden, and was very moist without dripping with water. It was made by Leo Donati in Melbourne's Carlton from the legs of large sows , brined and smoked over Tasmanian hardwood.
Victoria only, $21.90 per kilogram, 03 9347 4948
14. Woolworths Select Ham Half Leg
A large, golden, plump-looking ham, negligible smoke, inoffensive to bland flavour but a nasty chemical finish on the palate. Tasters recommended it best served with hot mustard.
NSW and Victoria, $9 per kilogram, woolworths.com.au
15. Gamze Smokehouse Traditional Christmas Leg Ham on the Bone
Irregular smoke finish with blotches on the skin led to this very decent ham being marked down. "A classic ham with balanced flavour, nice aroma and good mouthfeel," said Simon Poole. Made by Felix Gamze in Wangaratta, North East Victoria, with celery extract and not artificially produced nitrate, this ham was made with real free-range pork and brined with fresh herbs and sweetened with local honey.
NSW and Victoria, $39 per /kilogram, gamzesmokehouse.com.au
16. Berg Australian Half Leg Ham
Really smoky and slightly pale and sweaty looking; Gemima Cody declared this to be a "sauna ham". With its upfront smoke that disappears to a "roast pork" flavour, this value for money ham made from Australian pork for the German supermarket Aldi was best described as "probably best with red wine".
NSW and Victoria, $6.99 per kilogram, aldi.com.au
17. Bundarra Berkshires BEST CHEMICAL FREE
This is a ham made by Bundarra Berkshires in Barham, NSW, from free-range pork, without nitrates or nitrites. (These are preserving chemicals that retain the pink colour of the flesh, but are also linked with colourectal cancer.) The result is a very large, darkly coloured ham that is not pleasing pink but dull grey. It is, however, an incredibly delicious smoked pork product that will disappoint those wanting a traditional rosy ham but will thrill those who want to eschew nitrates and nitrites.
NSW and Victoria, $39 per kilogram, bundarraberkshires.com.au
18. Country Style Small Goods Ham on the Bone
Out around Ballarat in Western Victoria they like their hams and smallgoods smoky. This nicely presented dark ham, made by a Sebastian Jurcan, formerly of Istra Smallgoods, met that criterion. The garlic finish and overt wateriness led to this otherwise attractive ham being relegated to near the bottom of the pile.
Victoria only, $13.70, countrystylesmallgoods.com.au
19. Grain Fed 'Rivalea' Baby Leg Ham BEST BANG FOR YOU BUCK
Compact and lightly golden, this nuggety little ham on the bone was described by Gemima Cody as, "one to take to relatives who can't handle anything exciting." It is super juicy and lightly smoked. From stall-free sows, it is produced for Vic's Meats.
NSW and Victoria, $14.90 per kilogram, vicsmeatmarket.com.au
20. Salt Kitchen Charcuterie Christmas Ham BEST NEW ENTRY
Big, dark and but lightly smoked over beech, this is a ham for those who like sweet, flavoursome fat that balances the firm pink flesh, with a hint of bay and cloves, that is not pumped full of water. Made with free-range pork by former Movida chef-turned-butcher Mick Nunn from Ballarat butchery.
Available Victoria only, $28 per kilogram, 0458 310 379
21. Yarra Valley Smokehouse Ham on the Bone
An attractive and easy-to-eat ham, lightly smoked, perfect for those who like their ham not too moist. Made from free-range pigs from the Yarra Valley
NSW and Victoria, $25 per kilogram, rawmaterials.com.au
22. Newbury and Watson Heritage Breed Ham
Score: 15/20 WINNER
"I want this ham Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Eve," declared Good Food writer Hilary McNevin. The rest of the tasters agreed this to be a very good ham indeed. With its burnished dark copper skin, lovely deep aroma of red gum, beech and hickory smoke, it has concentrated porky flavour, nicely sweet but perhaps a touch salty. The flesh is not overly pumped with water so some tasters remarked that it felt dry but not unpleasantly so. The pork came from a free-range Berkshire sow raised in South Australia's Barossa Valley (with another herd in the south-east of the state) and was made to a recipe developed by award-winning Newbury and Watson Artisan Smallgoods Makers, co-owned by South Australian meat guru Richard Gunner.
NSW and Victoria, $25 per kilogram, feastfinefoods.com.au
Tips on preparing your ham
Ham fat is good
Keep the excess fat, don't throw it away. It can be rendered down to make beautiful smoky lard or chopped up and used to flavour your cooking like speck.
Hams are easier to carve when cold from the fridge. If you want the delicious layer of jelly on and in the meat, it should be served straight away before the jelly melts. Use a chilled serving plate if it is a hot day.
Video: Adam Liaw demonstates how to glaze a ham for Christmas
Thanks to tasters: Roslyn Grundy, Editor, The Age Good Food Guide; Gemima Cody, Epicure-Good Food restaurant reviewer; Michael Harden, Epicure-Good Food writer; Hilary McNevin, Epicure Good-Food writer; Nicole Papaz, Epicure-Good Food; Neil Prentice, Moondarra Wines; Zenon Misko, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival; Simon Poole, Kirk's Wine Bar charcutier; S.J. Farrell, meat commentator.