There's a machine at the Honey Glazed Ham Co. in Rexdale that's so zealously guarded that it can't be photographed or viewed in action by outsiders.
It's a spiral slicer and it cuts hams from bottom to top, right to the bone, in one continuous 1/8-inch thick slice.
One-eighth of an inch, it turns out, is a magical number.
"By cutting hams 1/8-inch thick, as opposed to into ham steaks or 1/4-inch thick, it releases the full flavours," insists company owner Todd White. "And it allows the glaze to seep down to the bone."
The glazing he will gladly demonstrate. White loads an already spiral cut, shank-end half of ham on to a stainless steel rack and slathers it with Billy Bee honey. In his left hand he holds a sifter loaded with about two cups of sugar, seasoning and honey buds. In his right hand he wields a propane torch. As the flames scorch the glaze, he sifts like mad to produce dynamic crackles and gorgeous hues.
"We're trying to achieve a nice golden colour and a thick crunchy layer," explains White, pausing to admire his handiwork before it's wrapped in gold foil. "See, I think half of it's the visual for the customer. You'd be proud to have that on your Christmas dinner table."
'Tis the season to eat ham. White expects to sell 10,000 for Christmas (compared to 5,000 at Easter and 2,500 at Thanksgiving). His artisan hams have a loyal following and are a perennial favourite at Star newsroom holiday potlucks. White actually sells 30,000 to 40,000 every year, since fans don't wait for the holidays to indulge.
For every Canadian who adores ham, another shuns it for splashier standing rib roasts, legs of lamb and the like. Perhaps in this time-starved, cooking-challenged era they don't appreciate ham's simplicity.
All you have to do is bring a fully cooked ham to room temperature and eat it.
"Its full flavour and moistness and tenderness is realized at room temperature," says White, who shudders to think of people cooking the heck out of hams. The most he recommends for a half ham is a quick and gentle warming in a 275F oven.
White's family has been gently coaxing Canadians to eat ham - and eat it properly - since 1985.
That's the year White's dad Don, who ran a janitorial service in Windsor, teamed up with Detroit restaurateur Jim Constand to bring honey-glazed, spiral-cut hams to Canada at a time when people were crossing the border to buy that very thing from an American company. The men bought the Canadian distribution rights for the spiral cutting machine and got to work tweaking the recipe.
Honey Glazed Ham retails and wholesales its hams directly from its Rexdale head office (see thehoneyglazedham.com for details) and ships them across Canada by UPS overnight. It also sells by custom order through a trusted network of 35 southern Ontario gourmet and butcher shops.
This network is trusted because White insists the hams retail for $6.99 a pound. It's a premium price, but it hasn't changed for 11 years. He can't legally force the pricing issue, but he can stop supplying retailers if he hears from angry customers.
White took over the family business five years ago, moving back to Ontario after 25 years in California. "In the States you can go into any restaurant and see ham and eggs on the menus. Americans are much more into their ham than Canadians are. Why that is, I don't know."
Even so, White has been growing the business, which now offers smoked turkeys, thick-sliced bacon and sides (from family recipes) like candied yams, scalloped potatoes, baked beans, split pea soup, pumpkin pie and apple-Craisin crisp.
But ham - the hog's hind leg - is the star here. Honey Glazed Ham uses only Ontario pork, sending legs that weight 14 to 25 pounds to a Hamilton smokehouse for a week's worth of curing and smoking. They're skinned, their fat is trimmed and they're injected with a secret water and spice blend, then left to soak in brine for several days. They get up to 20 hours in a smokehouse over hickory and applewood chips before resting in cold storage for several days, then being vacuum-packed and sent to Rexdale.
"A commercial ham is 20 to 40 per cent water and it's loaded with salt and preservatives," says White. "We tweaked our recipe to cure so we get a nice, dry, low salt, low water, low preservative ham.
"The secret to being able to spiral slice 1/8-inch thick is to start with a dry-cured ham."
Each ham is cut and glazed to order. You won't find clove-studded hams here - just smoky meet balanced by sweet, crisp glaze.
And here's a tidbit for your dinner table conversations. The fatty chunk in the centre of every ham is called star fat. The Honey Glazed Ham people find it unsightly, so they remove it for customers who order half hams and stuff the hole with a nicely folded slice of ham.
And one more thing: true ham aficionados looking for half a ham always specify shank or butt end. The former is slightly smokier but has more bone weight. The lattter is heavier and produces larger slices.
"We have customers that request both," admits White, "although I'm not sure if many of them know why."
Throw your leftover ham bone in a pot for these rib-sticking, comforting baked beans. The Honey Glazed Ham Co. uses (and sells) Honeycup brand stone-ground prepared mustard, made by Toronto-based Stone County Specialties.
It sells a version of this side dish as "Aunt Bette's Baked Beans" in homage to the relative who created the recipe. If your ham bone isn't loaded with meat, add some chopped leftover ham.
1 tbsp pepper
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 to 1 cup molasses, to taste
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 tbsp each: mustard, drained horseradish
Put beans in large bowl filled with water. Soak 8 hours to overnight. Drain; rinse.
In stockpot, combine beans, 8 cups water, ham bone, salt and pepper. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low. Cover. Simmer 3 hours, stirring occasionally.
Remove ham bone to cutting board. Remove all meat; chop. Discard bone.
To beans in pot, add ham, onions, sugar, molasses, vinegar, mustard and horseradish. Stir well.
Transfer to large, shallow baking pan. Bake in preheated 350F oven 30 minutes, until bubbling.
Makes about 16 cups.
By: Jennifer Bain, Toronto Star (Canada)