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Heavenly, earthy ham

Enjoying brushes with serrano and Parma, Southern country hams take on well-bred airs.

Now let us praise the guardians of America's country ham - respected and limited-edition hams, un-spiral cut or water-added, tempered in Smoky Mountain (or rural Vermont) smokehouses, aged for 10 months, 12 months and more, cured as carefully as Italy's finest, or most of Spain's, but of course rarely the beneficiary of an all-acorn diet, and rarely priced, as nutty Jamon Iberico is, at $129 the pound.

You may be inclined to forget this more-indigenous tradition, meat-curing as old as America's first non-European settlers: We're offered a different breed now, honey-glazed, spiral-cut, plumpy pink ham that, yes, can grace the holiday table. But you will not find rustic character in it, or earthiness, or that gentle sharpness of the wise old-timers.

So it is instructive to spend part of an afternoon with an appreciator of the ancient ham-making arts: Erin O'Shea, the chef at Marigold Kitchen, the dining room at the corner of 45th and Larchwood.

O'Shea is a native of a border state (Maryland). But she cut her culinary teeth in Virginia and South Carolina, developing a fondness for - or maybe a starry-eyed crush on - the authentic flavors of Southern regional cookery, risotto-esque stone-ground grits (previously discussed in this space) and pork sausage, parsnip-collard fritters, and, at the head of the list, country hams of various pedigrees and preparation.

She has developed a following of similarly disposed appreciators - diners who come to the sunny-walled former Victorian boardinghouse for her exquisitely updated reimagining of an American cuisine not often encountered this side (or, in such a sensitive rendition, even the other

side) of the Mason-Dixon Line.

I happen to be one of those appreciators, having roamed the back-roads North Carolina in my youth, foraging for the best vinegary, ham-hock-flavored greens and tangy, oak-smoked pulled pork, and at the coast, fish fried lightly - Calabash-style - in finely milled corn flour, and fluffy, fresh-baked ham biscuits.

When O'Shea called to ask if I wanted to sample her new "ham plate" (the appetizer "Tasting of Southern Ham," $12 for two), she had me at "ham."

She had a white platter, almost Asian in its austerity, ready when I showed up at the kitchen door: Three paper-thin, half-ounce shavings of variously cured or smoked hams; exclamation points with dots of stone-ground mustard, pear butter and orange marmalade at the bottom. They were the colors of tawny port - rosy, copper and amber.

The golfball-sized sea-salt rolls she serves with the hams were still in the oven. So we went to the basement to check out her sentimental favorite - the Wigwam Brand salt-and-brown-sugar-cured, pepper-coated hickory-smoked country ham, still aged (for up to 12 months) by the descendants of the Edwards family in Surry County, Va., close to where Indians first instructed the English settlers in the intricacies of flavoring and curing.

The ham was in a bag of flour-sack cloth, once a common sight, though in much saltier versions, hanging in the roadside stands and country stores of rural Virginia. (The pigs in this case were Missouri-bred, leaner than some, yet the flavor was well balanced between sharp and sweet, ripe with a rustic, musky smokiness. O'Shea calls it "pungent.")

In a walk-in nearby, as stony as sculpted marble, was a so-called Surryano Ham, a play on its Surry County roots and its Spanish serrano-style dry cure. This baby hangs in a smokehouse over smoldering hickory for a full week. (These pigs are a pasture-raised, more-fat-marbled heritage breed, the Six-Spotted Berkshire hog, yielding a slightly chewier chew and a mildly cheddary-sharp aftertaste.)

The last, which O'Shea suggested tasting first (because it was not smoked, and thus sweeter - luscious with the pear butter - and more delicate), was a silky, salty-sweet-cured Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Ham from Madisonville, Tenn. Benton's is known for bacon. But it's way beyond breakfast these days; Benton's is now doing its own line of prosciutto.

So it goes, Southern country hams heading uptown, picking up the airs of serrano and Parma. Which is fine with O'Shea, who wants to spread the word: She has "guest hams" up her sleeve ("Father's Ham" from Kentucky, for one), and she may even audition a Yankee - a Vermont ham slow-smoked over corncobs.

"We're going to need a ham room," she said.

Marigold Kitchen

501 S. 45th St.