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Country ham: rich flavors, loyal followings

Italy has prosciutto. Spain has Jamon Iberico and Jamon Serrano.

And in the South, we have country ham, meat that's aged, smoked and salted to develop a concentrated flavor.

All of these celebrated hams grew out of the need to preserve fresh meat before the age of refrigeration. Cured over months or years, they developed rich flavors and loyal followings.

Jamon Iberico, which until recently wasn't available in the United States, fetches a little more than $6 an ounce at La Tienda, a catalog specializing in Spanish food. Prosciutto is available at many grocers, especially upscale ones. And country ham? Inexpensive, vacuum-sealed packs of biscuit slices can be found in most Southern supermarkets.

But that kind of country ham isn't cured the way country hams of the past were. Modern meat processing technologies have sped up the aging process and tweaked the smoking and curing. It resembles authentically produced hams, but how closely?

I've wanted to cook a real country ham for years. It's a big job, requiring scrubbing mold off the surface of the cured ham (not harmful, all the literature says), several days of soaking, then a final boiling or baking.

As a long-time food writer, I know many cooks are nervous about preparing large cuts of meat, with Thanksgiving turkeys a perpetual worry. Small wonder, then, that something shrouded in a muslin bag, that requires mold removal and several days of cooking and can weigh up to 24 pounds doesn't find many takers. Most of the whole country hams that appeared in my neighborhood supermarket for the holidays are still there.

I had planned to buy one this year, but put those plans on hold when I heard about an irresistible offering. Wes and Charlotte Swancy, organic farmers who raise Berkshire pigs, cattle and vegetables at Riverview Farms in northwest Georgia, had sent some hams for curing to Allan Benton. He's a renowned producer of smoked meats, known for luscious bacon heavily perfumed with hickory smoke as well as the namesake product of his Benton's Smoky Mountains Country Hams in Madisonville, Tenn.

Over the next few days, I'll be getting the ham ready for a traditional Southern New Year's Day meal of pork, greens and black-eyed peas. Since I'm from Savannah, I'll have the black-eyed peas in a rice dish called Hoppin' John, a favorite on the Georgia and South Carolina coast.

Check back for photos and updates daily on the ham's progress, plus more information on New Year's Day meals.