Tonight is your chance—though certainly not the last one—to enjoy a fantastic country ham-inspired dinner at Azur Restaurant in Lexington. Executive chef Jeremy Ashby will put on this four course feast beginning at 6:30 p.m., though no one will mind if you show up early for cocktails, which is what I’ll be doing.
In case you’ve seen me promote past dinners, but didn’t know what they’re about, here’s a general summary of what happens at all of them:
We start the meal with a comparative ham tasting, a side-by-side look at three types of country hams. Tonight we taste my 10-month-old ham, Ashby’s prosciutto-style ham, and Harper’s Country Ham, made in Clinton, Ky. It’s important to note that Harper’s ham was a Kentucky State Fair Grand Champion in 2013, so it’s got creds. Also, Brian Harper, vice president at the Harper’s, which is Kentucky’s largest country ham producer, will be our special guest.
The point of the side-by-side tasting is to understand that country ham is no single product, that not only does each ham maker’s influence on the meat play a large role in its final flavor, but so does the place at which it’s made. Each ham house comes with its own flavors, be they created by smoke, decades of use, influence of both inside and outside air or mold. Yes, mold. In the same way that some aged cheeses get flavor from molds, country hams do, too. When it comes to flavor, mold is a good thing, but many country ham makers don’t like the effort required to scrub it off. I can understand that in the case of a brand like Harper’s, which makes more than 200,000 hams a year; scrubbing mold off that many hams can be a hassle.
So we talk about that, taste them simply sliced—not cooked—like prosciutto. I also like to get a ham maker talking about his or her technique and also gauge diners’ opinions on what they’re tasting, what they like and dislike. At two previous tastings, we’ve had ham maker Jay Denham talk about his Cure House hams made from Woodlands Pork hogs. Dude was a rock star at one tasting.
Sometimes there’s bourbon involved, and tonight, that’s on the menu. Not only is bourbon an historic part of Kentucky food, its natural smokiness makes it an excellent complement to country ham. Its sweetness helps offset some of the ham’s saltiness, and the sharp edge of the alcohol—yes, we sip it straight and slow during the tasting—cuts through any fattiness provided by the ham.
I’ve done this a few times before, and it’s a terrific treat to watch people understand how well they pair together, “play together,” some chefs like to say, and how diners begin to understand how delicious both are when consumed unadulterated. Aged tequila works equally well in the side sipper role.
Adulteration comes in with the rest of the meal when we eat several courses prepared using country ham as an ingredient. No fried ham steak and redeye gravy tonight, just fabulous food influenced by country ham. You’ll know it’s in there. Trust me.
So join us at Azur Restaurant in Lexington tonight. (Click here to see the menu.) The price is a ridiculous bargain at $45.95, plus tax and gratuity. I’ll be selling personalized copies of my book, “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke” for a special-event only price of $15 each. Great way to stock up on early Christmas gifts!