Ham or Lamb, A Choice for Easter Dinner

Ham or Lamb, A Choice for Easter Dinner

Perhaps this has never been a question for you? It is a timeless debate that speaks to personal preferences and culture traditions. While some may lean toward the classic comfort of a glazed ham, others may opt for the elegance of a tender, herb-crusted lamb roast. Which one speaks to you? Or would you be comfortable with either? And of course, because it is City Vino backing this conversation, what wine would you pick?

When the weather turns cold, the pig farmers slaughter a few pigs and hang the hams in a curing room. As few months go by, winter turns to spring which coincides with a long Lenten diet of self-denial. It is time to pull out that ham hock for a beautiful family moment on Easter. Perhaps your story is one of those other people, not so close to a farm that you might easily reach into the grocery store fridges and pull out your ham shanks. There are several choices from which to pick here, especially those of us in Virginia and fairly close to the pig Utopia of Richmond. You got your Virginia Country Ham, Smithfield Ham, Surryano Ham, and (a little farther away, in Tennessee) you got your Bentons Bacon & Country Ham. With any of the ideas, you take your prized bowling ball size hunk of meat, and you toss that baby into the oven for a few hours and for a minimal amount of work you have a safe, mostly likeable, easy Easter dinner. For a large crowd, it is the more economical way to go, considering the leftover can be remade into several other dishes, like school lunches or pea soup.

What can liven up this roast Easter pig? Cider! For those of you who are questioning this idea in your head, think how iconic a picture it is of a roasted pig laid out, with an apple in its mouth. Not just decoration. There are complementary and contrasting elements that elevate this meal. The sweetness of the cider can balance the saltiness of the ham, creating a harmonious flavor profile. Additionally, the acidity in cider helps cut through the richness of the ham, refreshing the palate with each sip. The effervescence of cider provides a lively texture.

If you have a Virginia country ham on the menu, then a great pairing is the NV Albemarle CiderWorks Wickson Crabapple cider. This ham presents an intriguing combination of flavors and textures. The cider's aromatic herbal notes, fruity and floral undertones, and briny minerality offer a dynamic contrast to the intense flavor and rich aroma of the ham. The cider's dryness and effervescence can help cleanse the palate between bites, while its high acidity and slight tartness complement the saltiness of the ham, resulting in a harmonious and satisfying dining experience that celebrates the best of both cider and cured meats.

If you have a Bentons Backon & Country Ham on the menu, then a great pairing is the NV Albemarle Pippin cider. This cider offers a juxtaposition of flavors that promises an intriguing culinary experience. The cider's vibrant blend of fruity and earthy notes, coupled with its creamy effervescence, provides a refreshing contrast to the bold, smoky flavors of the bacon and hams. While the intensity of the smoked meats may initially seem at odds with the cider's complexity, the cider's acidity and subtle funk could harmonize with the richness of the meats, resulting in a balanced and satisfying pairing. Together, they create a palate-pleasing union where each element enhances the other, making for a memorable culinary adventure.

For the rest of the globe, lamb has been the seasonal spiritual celebratory spring meat. The association of lamb with Easter dates back centuries and has roots in both religious and cultural practices. The Jews would sacrifice a lamb to welcome the growing season, the Christians and Muslims organize their own rituals. 

A step closer in time, the Spanish colonist brought sheep to the new world, and they were adopted by the Native Americans tribes in the Southwest, and other breeds became essential to British colonists in the East. Pigs and cattle have long been the preferred meat animals for the Northern Europeans, whose culture came to dominate America. Still, lamb (from a sheep that is about a year old or younger) and mutton (which comes from mature sheep) used to be more common when wool was in higher demand. In the 1940s, there were 56 million sheep in the United States. Now there are about six million. Being a bit more scarce then, lamb chops became a luxury item, reserved for a restaurant meal or a special dinner at home. A leg of lamb, with its varying muscle groups, was trickier to cook than a ham. Home cooks broke out the mint jelly and hoped for the best. At least the British and the American cooks pair mint jelly with lamb. Mediterranean folks would never think to do this!

The first lamb-wine pairing starts with a 2019 Darting Pinot Meunier, from Pfaltz Germany, described as having a vibrant array of fruity and herbaceous flavors, with medium-pllus acidity and medium-minus chalky tannins, it offers an opportunity to create a harmonious culinary experience. Given the wine's complexity and medium body, a preparation that enhances rather than overwhelms its nuances would be ideal. One suggestion could be a herb-crusted rack of lamb served medium-rare. The herb crust, composed of rosemary, thyme, and garlic, complements the wine's herbal notes while adding depth to the dish. Accompanying sides like roasted root vegetables and a light cranberry jus can further accentuate the wine's fruitiness and acidity. This pairing aims to highlight the lamb's succulence, while allowing the wine's intricate flavors to shine through, resulting in a delightful dining experience.

The second lamb-wine pairing starts with a 2017 Pilizota Babic, from Croatia, with grilled lamb chops with a wine reduction drizzled on top. The wine creates a culinary symphony that accentuates the wine's ripe dark fruit aromas, including blackberries, blueberries, plums, figs, and hints of licorice, alongside its signature earthiness. The wine's smooth yet firm palate, with mouthwatering acidity and subtle gamey notes, harmonizes elegantly with the grilled lamb, while its petite tannins deliver a gentle finish. This pairing creates a delightful experience, where each sip and bite reveal layers of complexity, inviting you to savor the interplay of flavors and textures with every indulgent moment.

Today, the American taste for lamb is changing, in part because both new immigrants and more adventurous younger eaters are changing the American palate. Good-tasting, well-raised lamb is becoming more available. Since 2009, lamb sales have jumped by about 28 percent, rising to 59 million pounds in 2016 from 46 million pounds, according to a study of store scanner data. (The numbers do not include stores like Costco or lamb sold to restaurants.) Braised lamb neck, lamb burgers and lamb ribs are on an increasing number of menus. About 10 percent of all lamb sales are now ground lamb, a product that was impossible to find a decade ago.

The Easter dinner choice between ham and lamb reflects personal preferences and cultural traditions rooted in history. Ham offers classic comfort with various curing techniques, while lamb symbolizes spring's elegance and ancient rituals. Whether you prefer succulent ham with cider or herb-crusted lamb with wine, both promise a memorable dining experience. The resurgence of lamb in American cuisine shows a trend towards diverse flavors. Whether you serve ham or lamb, each dish tells a story of tradition, celebration, and joy shared with loved ones.


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