THE AROMA OF SMOKE AND spices filled the sunny dining room. More than a dozen hams from across the nation were laid out on a table by the window. Gathered around was a team of food and wine industry professionals. Chefs, sommeliers, winemakers, bakers, buyers and commentators, assembled to judge the hams to find out which would make our 2012 list of the top 10 Christmas hams.
More than 20 ham-makers from throughout Australia were invited to take part. Not all had hams ready for judging day. Disappointingly, several hams sent by some of our top makers were lost by couriers. The hams had to be made from Australian pork, and be available for sale in Victoria and New South Wales.
Such was the spectacle that a small crowd of shoppers pressed their noses to the window to watch. A Christmas ham is a bountiful expression of hospitality and a symbol of one's ability to, almost literally, bring home the bacon. A great ham will cost a good deal of money and the comment, ''we were disappointed by the ham'', is not something you want to be saying on December 26.
Some of us were raised on hams swollen with brine, very moist and juicy. Others prefer drier, more toothsome hams. Some people love salt, others smoke. In the end, there was little between the top 10 hams, with only 10 points separating them.
There is no right or wrong with hams. It depends on personal preference and after that, value. You have to know what to look for. And if a ham is not to your liking, simply layer it with mustard, gravy, a little stuffing from the turkey and cranberry sauce, washed down with a glass of red: it may redeem itself.
1. VICTOR CHURCHILL KUROBUTA BERKSHIRE - NSW, 71/100
''Lovely smell. Like the ham I remember from my childhood.'' A beautifully prepared ham with a perfect balance of meat and fat from Kurobuta Berkshire pigs, a heritage English breed developed in Japan. It is made for Victor Churchill by Australia's best wholesale-only ham producer, who has balanced the smoke from the hot smoking and aromatics from the brine. Order by December 10.
8-10 kilogram leg $185
Simon Johnson, Chadstone, Fitzroy, Toorak (Melbourne)
Victor Churchill Kurobuta, Woollahra (Sydney)
2. BUNDARRA BERKSHIRE SMOKED HAM ON THE BONE - NSW, 70.5/100
Farmer Lauren Mathers keeps her herd of Berkshire pigs grazing in a paddock by the banks of the Murray River in Barham, New South Wales. She feeds them grain, lupins and avocados from a neighbour's farm. This is a beautifully shaped and dressed ham with a hugely appealing aroma redolent of spice. The fat interlacing the muscle has lovely moistness, and the intense salt is balanced by the smoke and spice.
$33/kg, Skinner and Hackett, Carlton North (Melbourne) or Mudgee Corner Store (delivers to Sydney, 02 6372 1441)
3. ANDREW'S CHOICE HAM ON THE BONE - VIC, 70/100
The length and depth of flavour were really notable on this very large leg from award-winning butcher Andrew Vourvahakis, who deals only in female pigs to avoid ''boar taint'' in his products. A deep covering of fat on the thigh saw this get the Jessica Simpson award from one taster. With its deep, dark skin, lingering aromas of spice, balanced smoke and salt, this is an outstanding and excellent value-for-money ham.
4. WATTLE CITY MEATS SMOKED TRADITIONAL HAM - VIC, 69/100
Voted best ham in Australia at a 2012 pork industry event, this is a testament to small-scale production, with neatly trimmed legs brined to a house recipe. It has complex floral aromatics and firm flesh for those who like a drier ham.
$16.99/kg, for stockists call (03) 5460 4637
5. BERTOCCHI HONEY GLAZED LEG HAM - VIC, 66/100
With its long, deep flavour, sweetness and mild smoky, spicy aroma, this ham, with a fine layer of fat, was made by a 40-year-old Melbourne family company. This isn't an extraordinary ham; it is simply a ham you could put on the Christmas table without offending anyone. Although it received only middling scores from the judges, it wasn't marked down because of any one fault.
$14.99/kg, good delis and independent supermarkets
6. SKARA HUMANE CHOICE LEG HAM ON THE BONE - SA, 64/100
This very appealing ham was described as sexy by more than one taster. Anthony Skara, of the Adelaide Hills, sources pigs from heritage breeds that are fully certified free-range. He selects younger, smaller pigs so the meat flavour is not intense, but the combined cure, pork and smoke gives a lovely sweetish ham with ''good colour and great flavour''.
$30/kg, Savour and Grace, (03) 9371 1111 (Melbourne), or Angela's Fine Food, Moorebank (Sydney)
7. KACZANOWSKI SMOKEHOUSE LEG HAM - NSW, 63.5/100
A well-presented ham with a wonderful aroma of the hickory over which it was hot-smoked. This is a ham with a deceptively light skin covering a layer of sweet fat that melts easily on the tongue, making the fine flesh beautifully moist. One for those who love their ham smoky and salty.
$13.99 - $17.99/kg www.kaczanowski.com.au or $19/kg, Cleo's Deli, Prahran Market (Melbourne)
8. PINO'S DOLCE VITA LEG HAM - NSW, 62.5/100
Large deep-golden ham with fine to medium-grain flesh that tastes nutty and is moreish, slightly towards the dry end of the spectrum. Made using Bangalow pork brine-soaked (not injected) for 12 days, then hot-smoked over German beechwood.
$25.50/kg, Peter Watson, Collingwood (Melbourne) or $21.99/kg Pino's Dolce Vita Fine Foods, Kogarah (Sydney)
9. PETER G BOUCHIER - VIC, 62/100
A lovely, dense ham from one of Melbourne's finest butchers. Another ham for lovers of salt and smoke, it has a mild flavour and a good layer of melt-in-the-mouth fat.
$21.90/kg, Peter G Bouchier, Hawksburn, Melbourne; David Jones, city; and selected IGAs
10. THE BLACK PIG SUGAR CURED LEG HAM ON THE BONE - SA, 60.5/100
Smooth and velvety, moist and sweet, the flesh carries a complex aroma that is not overwhelmed by aggressive smoke. Made by Saskia Beer using heritage breed Berkshire pig legs, brined in a mix of salt, dark sugar with peppercorns and cloves, and smoked over red gum in a traditional brick smokehouse, giving it a beautiful golden skin.
$44.98/kg, all Thomas Dux stores; Peter G Bouchier in Melbourne
How we judged the hams
The hams had earlier been presented to chef and co-owner of Union Dining in Richmond, Victoria, Nicky Reimer. She labelled each ham with a number written on a parcel card tied to a piece of string threaded through the skin.
This was a blind tasting where there could be no mistakes.
The tasting panel was given no clues as to the identity of the hams and were instructed to keep their opinions to their score sheets.
The judges were the eyes, noses and mouths of the readers, carefully assessing each ham. They looked for smooth and careful trimming on the skin and around the hock. Rough cut marks are indicative of rushed butchery and a precursor to cut corners. They were looking for a pleasing, even colour on the skin and exposed flesh and evenness of colour through the slices of cut ham. Patches of different-coloured meat can mean an uneven cure.
The tasting panel sniffed the hams for attractive aromas and any hint of rancidity from the fat.
Slices were taken from different muscles around the ham with some including the fat. Ham closer to the bone tends to be firmer and darker. The muscles closer to the skin are of a looser texture but also in contact with the fat, which contains so much of the flavour.
Judges focused on the quality of the fat and the way it melted in the mouth. Half of the final score was weighted to flavour and texture, with judges favouring hams that had length of flavour and a lingering savoury character.
Hams that were pallid, overly smoky or salty tended to be marked down. The top 10 are presented here. Four of the top 10 were from New South Wales, four from Victoria and two from South Australia. Judges were marking the hams against their own personal benchmarks, against the hams of their Christmases past.
Drinks on the side
Some hams are stronger and smokier, others are sweeter and milder. Gamier, porky hams call perhaps for a sparkling shiraz. Hams endowed with sweet fat can be accompanied by an unctuous pinot gris or a feral farmhouse cider from Normandy in France. The clean, all-round hams are a perfect foil for beaujolais, or even the more robust gruner veltliners from Austria. If all else fails, crack open a cold pale ale.