"Ham, glorious ham! What is there more handsome? Glazed, bone-in or served cold. Still worth a king's ransom!"
At least, I think that's how the Oliver! lyrics go. Ham has graced Christmas tables since the time of Charles Dickens. Covered in breadcrumbs and mustard, ham is a constant of Swedish holiday buffets, and in Finland salt-cured swine leg is the main yuletide attraction, baked and garnished with poached apples and prunes.
In Australia, ham comes into its own after Christmas Day. No longer competing for attention with prawns and Cadbury Favourites, ham takes its place as King of the Fridge, ready to be whittled to a hock over the coming week. Boxing Day sandwiches are essential, of course, but ham-heavy frittata is never a bad idea, plus buttery croque monsieurs and late-night fried rice. New Year's Eve is a cause for terrine.
Italian traditionalists, look away now: I don't mind leftover ham in place of guanciale or bacon in a carbonara. (No cream though, please, I'm not a monster.) Leg ham and fresh pineapple pizza is nothing less than sensational – especially with a vibrant McLaren Vale fiano – and bechamel-filled ham croquetas with a chilled sherry is pure deep-fried joy.
But in spite of its limitless leftover potential, I'd wager most Christmas ham is consumed one slice at a time – taxed from the fridge en route to the backyard or telly, without mayo or coleslaw to hide its faults. For many Australians, this ham snacking is the highlight of summer, right up there with chicken salt and Rafa Nadal's shorts. A bad ham, it should be said, can ruin Christmas.
Thankfully, bad hams are also easy to spruce up. God bless the power of the glaze. Do you have a cup's worth of marmalade in the cupboard? Nice work, you have a glaze. Do you have marmalade, orange juice, rum and fresh ginger? You have an even better glaze.
Other simple glazing combinations include equal parts brown sugar and apple cider, with a cup of extra cider for basting. (See also: 11 glaze recipes.)
Score the fat, stud a few cloves and serve on a bed of bay leaves pinched from the neighbour's garden. A masterclass in minimum effort for maximum reward with the benefit of helping hams with too much moisture become a little less wet.
Indeed, the supermarket has long been a hotbed of those damp hams – pig limbs injected with more water than most public swimming pools. Times are a-changin', however, and it's now possible to pick up a damn fine ham during your weekly shop.
While Good Food has prepared a list of great artisan hams, see below, we also understand Christmas is a ferociously busy few weeks and sometimes a supermarket mission is the most convenient ham option. With that in mind, we set about sorting the pink from the pale, the wet from the dry.
Pen and carving knife in hand, four chefs sniffed out nine nationally available supermarket hams. Each entry was judged on appearance, texture, aroma and taste to arrive at a final average score. Hams were blind-tasted to keep the source unknown, however, discussion was permitted throughout the tasting.
Here, we've listed the session's top five Australian hams. The other legs scored well under 5 of the possible 10 points, often because they were squishy like a sponge, which is what can happen when a ham is injected with too much water to increase its weight.
We discovered a supermarket ham's ingredient label gives few clues to its quality, with many listing the same mineral salts, acidity regulators and "preservative 250", also known as sodium nitrate and used to protect against food deterioration and give cured pork its pink hue.
Meanwhile, kitchen logic suggests the lower the pork content, the more watery the ham, but the panel's two highest scoring legs both had four per cent less meat content than most hams that didn't cut the mustard. Christmas shopping is complicated.
Jacqueline Challinor – executive chef at Nomad, Sydney, and fond of curing her own Christmas hams.
Jesse McTavish – co-founder of Top Paddock and Kettle Black in Melbourne, now leading the kitchen at Bar Elvina in Avalon, Sydney.
Francois Poulard – head chef at Chiswick Woollahra, who relocated to Australia from France in 2014.
Claire Van Vuuren – owner-chef of Bloodwood in Newtown and longtime ambassador for Australian Pork.
Aldi Specially Selected Premium triple smoked ham. Photo: Jennifer Soo
1. Aldi Specially Selected Triple Smoked Half Leg Ham
Price $11.99 a kilogram
Aldi's more "select" ham in the house range performs well above its price point. Certainly worth lining up for.
McTavish: Amazing. It actually tastes smoky and like a proper ham, which is a lot more than I can say for some of the other legs we've tried. Great aroma.
Poulard: The texture is excellent too. Moist but not wet.
Van Vuuren: There's a pleasant wood smoke aroma. Good mouth-feel, not too dry. I like its dark colour and the meat has a nice grain. You can tell this pig had a healthy work-life balance.
Berg Smallgoods Deli ham. Photo: Jennifer Soo
2. Aldi Berg Smallgoods Deli
Price $8.99 a kilogram
Cured with honey, twice-smoked over beechwood, and made exclusively for Aldi Australia.
Challinor: This looks great and carves well, but it's not as smoked as I like for a ham. I dig the natural grain of the meat though.
McTavish: A bit on the dry side, but it's super tasty. And there's diversity in flavour across different parts of the leg. Good one.
Woolworths Gold free-range ham. Photo: Jennifer Soo
3. Woolworths Gold Free Range Bone-In Half Leg Ham
Price $14 a kilogram
Woolies' gourmet ham is cured from certified free-range pigs and triple-smoked over hickory wood. There are a few wrinkly rack marks, but that's not a bad thing.
Challinor: Rack marks on the skin indicate care has been taken to smoke it. The ham hasn't just been hanging in a giant, smoky warehouse. This is what my hams at the restaurant look like. It's also easy to carve.
McTavish: It is a bit overly salty, but maybe it would be OK between bread with a few other bits and pieces.
Van Vuuren: It's spongy, yep, but I reckon it would fry up nicely.
Coles Finest triple smoked free-range ham. Photo: Jennifer Soo
4. Coles Finest Triple Smoked Free Range Half Leg Ham
Price $14.50 a kilogram
The posh ham from Coles, courtesy of RSPCA-approved pigs and cured with hand harvested Mount Zero salt.
Van Vuuren: This looks amazing. Have they been feeding the pigs creamed corn, I wonder? Because it tastes like creamed corn. Whatever the reason, it's too sweet for me.
Poulard: It starts dry, but is juicer around the hock.
Challinor: This is the best looking one by far. I guess it goes to show that you can't judge a ham by its cover.
IGA Naturally Smokey leg ham. Photo: Jennifer Soo
5. IGA Naturally Smoked Leg Ham
Price $9 a kilogram
Packed by independent grocer supplier Metcash in Macquarie Park, Sydney. At 460 kilojoules per 100 grams, this leg contains around a third less energy than all other hams listed. The healthy ham? With 450 milligrams of sodium per serving, no, not really. None of the hams tasted had more than two Health Stars, but hey, it's Christmas.
McTavish: There's a strange flavour to this one.
Van Vuuren: I agree. There's a leafy green taste at the start that gives way to sweetness on the finish. Great texture and grain though.