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Brown Hotel chefs travel to Newsom’s Country Ham ahead of Friday artisan ham dinner

by Steve Coomes

PRINCETON, Ky.—“Come on! Let’s go see these hams!” Laurent Geroli whispers to a pair of traveling companions while grinning and nibbling on slices of Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham.

Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, a.k.a. “The Ham Lady,” and artisan ham maker in Princeton, Ky.

The executive chef at the Brown Hotel, Geroli isn’t as impatient as he is excited. A week ahead of a Jan. 11 dinner at the hotel’s English Grill restaurant, he and chef de cuisine James Wilfong are in Princeton for a short field trip to see the hams they’ll use for the five-course dinner, a meal that, naturally, will be paired with bourbon drinks.

Pointing to a small grocery cart full of whole hams, he added, “I want to see where they make those things!”

At least he gets to taste while he waits. Before Geroli and four others is a plate of sliced Newsom prosciutto, Preacher’s Ham (which is smoked) and a cooked country ham all made by third-generation owner Nancy Newsom Mahaffey. As everyone eats, she details the business’s history and why she is carrying on the tradition begun by her grandfather in 1917.

“I never even wanted to be in the ham business, but when the store burned in 1987, I felt I needed to help my father get things running again,” said Newsom Mahaffey, regarding her father, the Col. Bill Newsom in the business’s name. She’s since become known internationally as “the Ham Lady,” and in 2009 she became the first American ham maker invited to exhibit at Spain’s World Congress of Dry-Cured Ham. “Now I’m as particular as he was about how we make hams. I guess it became my obsession like it was his.”

Brown Hotel executive chef Laurent Geroli talks to Nancy Newsom Mahaffey in the drying room at Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams.

The plate now empty, Geroli gets his wish as Newsom leads the small group to her operation, a pair of small cinderblock buildings right behind Col. Bill’s former home. Having immediate access to his hams ensured the Colonel’s simultaneous control over quality and theft, she said.

Considering the prized hams created within, the grey block structures are unimpressively homely inside and out. Inside the ham gulags are three tables for curing and washing the hams, and dozens of high-stacked wooden racks on which some of the hams hang to dry for nearly two years. In the corner of the drying room is a metal cauldron used to burn wood for smoke, and on the high ceiling is a bare bulb electric light.

“We really haven’t changed anything since we started,” Newsom Mahaffey said, adding that her process is based on a 300-year-old curing recipe.

“You don’t have any reason to do that,” Geroli added, his French Canadian accent echoing in the frigid drying room. “These are perfect.”

He’s not the first to dub them so. The legendary James Beard wrote about Newsom hams in his New York Times column. Newsom Mahaffey has been featured in Peter Kaminsky’s book, “Pig Perfect,” and interviewed by dozens of publications including Forbes, Men’s Vogue, Garden & Gun and The Wall Street Journal.

“Not bad for a little bitty business from Princeton, Kentucky,” Newsom Mahaffey said. Though the operation won’t become big, Newsom Mahaffey is expanding some by constructing a new drying room below the general store, a three story brick edifice built in the mid-19th Century. “All I want to do is handle our overflow for chefs and people who want to get hams from me from January and October.”

Like Geroli, who along with Wilfong, has created the following menu for Friday evening:

  • Appetizer: savory bourbon waffle with Newsom’s smoked cured bacon jam and bourbon eggnog
  • Second course: Newsom’s smoked sausage po’ boy with pumpkin-bourbon mustard
  • Third course:seared grouper with Newsom’s aged country ham brown butter, whipped parsnips, honey-bourbon carrots

    Newsom Mahaffey and Geroli chat in the curing and washing room. With the fall slaughter now past, the room will stand empty for several months.

  • Fourth course: seared filet mignon with truffled cauliflower puree, fig jam and Newsom’s  dry aged prosciutto
  • Dessert: Newsom’s smoked cured bacon-chocolate soufflé with bourbon anglaise

Newsom Mahaffey (an incredibly interesting character and bubbly conversationalist) will be there, of course, to talk about her business and the art of artisanal ham curing.

The price of the dinner is $65 per person (plus tax and gratuity), and reservations can be made by calling the Brown Hotel at 502-583-1234.

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