With movie-set charm and world-famous ham, Smithfield, Virginia, makes the perfect place to spend the holidays.

Sparkle in a Small Virginia Town
Boats docked at Smithfield Station sport festive lights.
| Credit: Vince Lupo

Residents here hang pigs on their Christmas trees. If you don't believe me, ask Jim Abicht, owner of The Christmas Store on Main Street in Smithfield, Virginia.

"In a town that calls itself the Ham Capital of the World, it's one of the necessities of doing business," he admits sheepishly.

Hamming It Up
This town has long been famous for Smithfield ham, that salt-cured, ruby-hued delicacy that defines the flavor of Virginia. Smithfield hugs the banks of the Pagan River, a marsh-fringed tributary of the mighty James. Though just 30 miles west of Norfolk, Smithfield seems a world away from the region's bigger cities.

Huge, dreamy houses line Church Street, the road that traces the serpentine path of the river as it leads into town. Most of the shops congregate around Main Street, which branches off Church and runs from northwest to southeast through town. Brick sidewalks and wrought iron street signs lend character to the thriving business district.

An Old-fashioned Christmas
When it comes to the holidays, the folks in Smithfield celebrate with style. An oh-so-jolly Santa makes appearances at downtown businesses. On the second Saturday in December, the town sponsors an old-fashioned Christmas parade with Boy Scouts, dance troops, and marching bands.

It's also the perfect time to explore the stores and antiques shops. Stop by The Genuine Smithfield Ham Shoppe for a taste of the town's most famous product. In addition to whole and sliced hams, they sell Virginia peanuts and pig collectibles.

At The Christmas Store this year, Jim Abicht offers the eighth in his series of Smithfield ornaments, as well as his custom-designed version with an anthropomorphic pig hanging its stockings by the chimney with care.

Don't miss Wharf Hill Antiques, an exquisite shop housed in the town's original hardware store. Owner Judy Begland artfully blends antique pieces with modern home and garden accessories.

When you've shopped until your feet ache, head over to the Smithfield Inn. Warm up with a bowl of Brunswick Stew ($5.95) or Cream of Peanut Soup ($5.95), and then sink your teeth into a sweet potato roll piled high with Smithfield ham ($1.50). It's a very Virginia way to kick off the holiday season.

For more information:
Contact the Isle of Wight-Smithfield-Windsor Chamber of Commerce, (757) 357-3502, www.theisle.org, or www.smithfield-virginia.com. Where to stay: Smithfield Station ($79-$225) features 22 rooms with water views; (757) 357-7700. At the Smithfield Inn ($85-$335), you can choose from five suites or the garden house; (757) 357-1752.

More About Country Hams
This time of year, hand-scrawled signs appear in shop windows across the South: "Cured country hams now available. Don't get left out; buy yours today!"

Country ham marks the approach of the holidays, a time when family recipes offer us a taste of tradition. Those ham recipes are as different as the regions from which they come. A touch of sugar, pinch of pepper, or the bold flavor of the cure--each defines a true country ham. When asked which produces the finest meat, I have to confess I enjoy them all.

You can find this delicacy, which is an acquired taste, as whole cooked hams, uncooked hams, or prepackaged slices. When buying your first, look for a ham aged five to six months; it will have a milder flavor. If you have a seasoned palate and crave a more concentrated flavor, a 12- to 14-month ham is ideal. Regardless of your choice, tackling an uncooked ham can be overwhelming. Your butcher, though, is your best friend in this project. Ask him to cut a little bit off the top of the hock; doing so will give you extra room in the roasting pan. Don't discard this piece of meat; instead, use it for seasoning soups and beans."

It's a good idea to remove mold (a natural part of the aging process) on the ham with elbow grease, warm water, and vinegar. After the ham has been scrubbed, soak it in a deep pot or kettle full of water to replace some of the moisture lost during curing. You'll need a large roasting pan for cooking. If your pan doesn't have a lid, heavy-duty aluminum foil will work just as well.

It's important for the ham to cool completely before slicing, or it can crumble. Serve thinly sliced at room temperature for optimal flavor.

Country ham dries out quickly. Slices can be frozen for two months or refrigerated for two weeks. Keep the ham moist by laying excess fat on top. The ham needs to breathe, so wrap with wax paper. Then secure with aluminum foil.

Our recipe ensures a juicy, traditionally flavored ham. Serve on biscuits with or without mustard. This is our salute to those who preserve their heritage the old-fashioned way.

Featured Recipe:
Country Ham