Ask anyone, and you’ll find out that Virginia is known across the country for having some of the best ham anywhere. Many families in the state have passed down their unique recipes for making ham from generation to generation, creating a beloved culinary tradition that endures to this day.

In fact, Virginia is home to the world’s oldest ham, on display in the Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield. If you’re curious to see it for yourself, the 119-year-old ham can be viewed on a live stream, appropriately named the “ham cam.”  

If you’re new to the world of Virginia ham, a few common questions might arise: What makes a Virginia ham specifically Virginian? How does this delicious hallmark continue to bring crowds coming back for more, year after year? More importantly, where can you try a taste of Virginia ham? Let’s dive in.

The History of Virginia Ham

As an integral part of the Commonwealth’s culture, Virginia-style ham is influenced by the rolling landscapes, natural terrain, and local flavors of the state. The very origins of ham in the area are rooted back to colonial times in Jamestown, over 400 years ago.

Indigenous peoples first taught the settlers in Jamestown how to preserve meat by using salt, smoke, and aging. Natural changes in outdoor temperatures would allow the meat to transform into ham slowly.

Smithfield's Porcide Parade

Smithfield's Porcide Parade

Photo Credit: Emily Condit

The neighboring town of Smithfield, Virginia, known as the “ham capital of the world” and “Hamtown,” is one of the biggest hubs for ham production. Smithfield is also home to Smithfield Foods, a world-famous name in the food industry. Smithfield celebrates its ham heritage by proudly showcasing life-sized statues of market hogs painted by local artists throughout the entire town. It’s quite a sight to be seen!

Virginia Ham vs. Virginia-Style Ham

There’s a key difference between Virginia ham and Virginia-style ham. While Virginia ham refers to any country ham produced in Virginia, Virginia-style ham typically refers to hams that are not necessarily made in the state, but are cured and smoked in the traditional way, no matter the geographic location.

Virginia Ham

The main difference between the two lies in where the ham is produced and adherence to traditional methods. If you’re looking for the most authentic Virginia ham, be sure to check where the ham was produced before purchasing.

A Distinct Flavor

Virginia ham is noted for its savory yet sweet taste and pleasant mildness. The special combination of ingredients and curing make Virginia ham truly unlike any other.

Virginia Peanuts

Belmont Peanuts

Photo Credit: Ashley Johnson

After the Civil War, peanuts became a major crop in Smithfield, Surrey, and Isle of Wight County. As you might imagine, the pigs quickly feasted upon the peanuts while they roamed freely on the land. This special diet contributed so much to the unique flavor that even Queen Victoria had a standing order for six hams a week.

A Natural Curing Process

Curing a ham takes quite an impressive amount of time, patience, and practice. The perfect combination of variables, like the type of smoke, salt, and spices used, how long the ham is aged for, and fluctuating temperatures all impact the final flavor. Because so many factors go into making ham, rare few families have continued the practice over the years.

“We only cure in January, so we rely on the natural temperatures outside to help cure the hams,” said Ron Turner, who runs Fulks Run Grocery in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley with his wife, Peggie. “That's one thing that sets us apart from the bigger ham producers.”

In some circles, the curing of ham has become a true art form, a process that harkens back to earlier times, a contrast to the mass production practices of today. At Fulks Run, the ham is sugar cured, including salt, brown sugar, and sodium nitrate, which preserves the ham. Other producers incorporate signature spice mixes or smoke to tailor the flavor.

Where to Find Local, Virginia Ham

Bacon's Castle Peanuts

Bacon's Castle Peanuts

Photo Credit: John Brock

The families who continue to produce ham in Virginia today are sought out like no other. You can stop by and taste the ham at most stores to find a flavor to your liking before making a purchase.

Fulks Run Grocery

Fulks Run Grocery & Turner Hams

The country ham at Fulks Run, labeled under the brand name Turner Ham House, has a longstanding reputation. Founded in 1949 by Garnett and Lena Turner, Ron's parents, Fulks Run is also known for its famous fried ham sandwich, a savory and satisfying twist on a traditional ham sandwich, served only on Fridays. In fact, the sandwich has become so popular that people drive for hours from neighboring cities to get their hands on one, two — or even three.

Fulks Run sells between 300-400 fried ham sandwiches on any given Friday from March to early November. Be sure to call ahead of time if you’re planning a visit to snag one yourself — the store sometimes closes up shop depending on staff availability.

Darden's Country Store

Darden's Country Store

Photo Credit: Elly Condit

Darden’s Country Store, another legendary local destination, is known for having some of the best smoked Smithfield ham. Located right in Smithfield, the family-run business works with each ham individually, ensuring quality above all else. 

Proclaimed as a “thin slice of hog heaven,” the ham at Darden’s is so popular, it’s been featured on The Food Network, Southern Living, The New York Times, and more publications. A working farm of over 600 acres, Darden’s also grows peanuts, corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and pumpkins, along with tending livestock like goats and sheep.

The Old Virginia Ham Shop in Norfolk is another rare gem. First opened in 1956, it still operates out of the same red barn today. The store sells both sugar-cured and traditional Smithfield country hams, which you can conveniently order online if you aren’t within driving distance.

Virginia Ham Sandwich

Today, Virginia ham continues to be a popular delicacy and an iconic part of the Commonwealth’s culinary heritage. Whether enjoyed in thin slices paired with freshly baked biscuits, crafted into a hearty stew, or made into a delicious fried sandwich, Virginia ham is an enduring source of pride and a delectable link to the past.