(Courtesy of Fra' Mani)

These Bay Area Butcher Shops Are Serving up Artisan Ham for the Holiday

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A holiday meal isn't complete without a ham.

In my Southern family, no holiday is complete without pork. We start each new year with a traditional "good luck" meal of pork chops, black-eyed peas, and greens. On Easter, we skip the lamb in favor of a Smithfield Spiral Ham, glazed with brown sugar and crowned with pineapple rings. Our Fourth of July barbecue is pit-cooked pulled pork, served with crunchy red cole slaw and hush puppies. But the best swine of all is saved for Thanksgiving and Christmas, when my mother's baby brother slow bakes a fresh ham.

Compared to the cured and pre-cooked hams we all know and love, Uncle Mike's Magic Ham tastes like a different animal entirely. The meat is so tender it falls off the bone in buttery flakes that melt in your mouth. The flavor is pure pork, unadulterated by smoke or brine.

In an attempt to recreate the heavenly ham of my youth for Bay Area friends, I discovered that raw, fresh hams are harder to come by than the ubiquitous cured and cooked grocery store varieties. Fortunately, high-quality, fresh ham can be had—for a price. In addition, it's easy to find locally made, fully cooked artisan hams that will cure you of any craving for mass-produced "commodity" versions.

Compared to beef, lamb and fish, pork is some of the least expensive protein available. Traditional grocery stores sell commodity ham for as little as $1.50 per pound. On the other hand, if you're concerned about the living conditions of the animals, or the way the meat is processed, you can expect to pay $8.00 or more per pound. You can also expect to be glad you did, once you taste the difference. The locally available artisan hams listed here are worth every extra penny.

Fra' Mani Uncured Hams

Sweet Apple Uncured Ham

(Courtesy of Fra' Mani)

Berkeley-based Fra' Mani offers three types of uncured, fully-cooked hams that are prepared for the deli case but so delicious you'll want to give them equal billing with the turkey on your Thanksgiving stage. All three hams are made from humanely raised pork procured from family farms such as Niman Ranch and Heritage Acres. The meat is brine-cured in salt, sugar and water; tumbled gently to distribute the brine; then hand-formed, netted, and hung in a special smokehouse to finish, slowly.

The Smoked Uncured Ham is a two- to three-pound, football-shaped ham made from the quadricep muscle. Fra' Mani founder and curemaster Paul Bertolli (former chef of Chez Panisse) says, "It's a working muscle, so it's very red, and leaner than the top round, bottom round, and eye of round that we use to make our smoked apple ham and our rosemary ham." Averaging five pounds a piece, they will serve 12 people, with enough leftovers for a few ham sandwiches. To serve the rosemary ham, Bertolli suggests preparing a baste by softening some mirepoix (chopped carrot, onion and celery) in a pan with a sweet riesling, honey water, or orange juice and brown sugar. Baste the ham frequently in a slow oven (300 degrees). When the meat reaches 140 to 150 degrees, "slice the ham into the mirepoix with all that juice and let it sit." Compared to a commodity ham, he says, "you'll get more pork flavor, more color, and a more interesting texture."

Where to buy it:

  • Cal-Mart: 3585 California St. (Presidio Heights), 415-751-3516, calmartsuper.com
  • Berkeley Bowl: 2020 Oregon St (Berkeley), 510-843-6929, berkeleybowl.com
  • Berkeley Bowl West: 920 Heinz Ave. (Berkeley), 510-898-9555, berkeleybowl.com
  • Magnani's Poultry: 1576 Hopkins St. (Berkeley), 510-528-6370, magnanis.com

Price: $13.99 –$16.99 per pound from the deli case. Call ahead to make sure an unopened ham is available.

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