THE CHRISTMAS HAMS already are hanging at J.D. Johnson's General Store in Covesville, Va. The packing house delivered the hams on a cold morning last January, but Johnson didn't put them on sale until well into summer. Don't get to tasting their best, he says, 'til 'round about Christmastime.

He turns a key in the padlock that secures the small cinderblock smokehouse out behind his roadside country store. Inside, the ceiling dangles with weighty, moldy country hams, the kind Virginia's famous for.

"We put up 209 this year," says Johnson. He expects to sell them all before New Year's, as he did last year. No trouble. People drive from North Carolina, call him up from South Carolina, just to be sure they have one of J.D. Johnson's Virginia country hams on their table for Christmas dinner every year.

The reasons Virginians are specially known for curing hams remain obscure. "They smoke hams in North Carolina, but they just don't taste as good," is the way Johnson explains it.

Some claim that the wild boars that once roamed the Blue Ridge interbred with the colonists' European stock, resulting in particularly flavorful joints for the pioneer smokehouse. Others say that since Virginia hogs ran wild, their foraged diet of acorns and chestnuts gave the meat a flavor all its own. Still others maintain that a barnyard diet of that other Virginia mainstay, peanuts, earned the state its name for ham.

Whatever the historical reasons, a traditional Virginia country ham must undergo three curing stages. It's piled high with salt, then caked with molasses, then bathed in hickory smoke for a while. No short cuts, no nitrites, no coloring or preservatives. It's an old-fashioned method that allows meat to hang for months, even years, without spoiling. It takes a lot of hand work, and it takes a lot of time.

"I guess we handle these things 15, 16 times before they're ready," says Lewis Carver, one of two locals who Johnson hires to put up the hams. A heavy man, kind of shy at first but lovably good-natured, Carver wields a long, sharp butchering knife when the hams arrive on a snow-blown day in January.

"Got to get all that old, haggly meat," he says, trimming an inch-thick strip of fat and hide off a 23-pound fresh ham, improving the curves of the cut. "This piece right here would get just like brine if you left it on. You just shape that ham up."

You hear the thump of flesh as Carver heaves each trimmed ham over in front of Jesse Graybill, who peers through dusty bifocals perched on a bony eagle nose. His brown felt hat looks almost as old as he is, and he says he's 74. His red flannel shirt's already sprinkled with salt that strayed.

He digs his hand into the mound of salt, lightly seasoned with sugar and pepper. He tosses a handful into the nooks and crannies of the ham. "Feel that salt--now that's cold," Graybill exclaims, shivering. The electric space heater seems to make more noise than heat.

Graybill dumps a handful on top of the hock, then heaves that ham up onto one of the shelves that crowd the corners of this humble smokehouse. You can smell the red meat; you can even smell the salt. By the time these men are finished, the little building is full of hams caked high with salt.

The hams sit like this for weeks. The salt crusts up and draws moisture out of the ham so that after a short time no bacteria can possibly take up residence in the meat. Moisture oozes out, dissolving the salt, until the hams look like someone came along and crystallized them. The meat loses its fleshy pink color, taking on that country brown from salt-curing.

Six weeks later, a gray day in February, Carver and Graybill are back at work. They knock off loose salt with a whisk broom and paint the hams with blackstrap molasses warmed over a naked lightbulb. They sprinkle finely-ground black pepper on top.

"Awful lookin' things now, aren't they?" asks Carver. They're gnarled and knotty, speckled black and white. It's true; they look barely edible. They've got months to go before they're done, but they won't get any prettier.

The hams sit to dry and soak in molasses for a week, then they're strung shank up in nylon mesh bags. A week of hanging in this manner shapes the butt end of the ham. For smoking they come out of the bags and hang, still butt end down, the better to soak in the smoke.

Smoking time comes when the weather has warmed enough to give those hams a breather. Might be mid-March, might be April. It's different every year. But when the moment strikes J.D. Johnson right, he fills the rusty pot-bellied stove with sawdust hauled from the hickory mill down the road.

Once the fire's lit, it smolders for over a week. Smoke fogs up the little cinderblock building, seeping out door and window cracks. Still watching the weather, Johnson opens the door on cool mornings, turns on a fan, lets the temperature drop. Each evening he'll come back and get the fire going again, over the course of eight or 10 days.

When the smoking's over, Carver and Graybill come back one last time to turn the hams shank end down for the rest of the curing season. "Keeps the flavor from dripping out that wide butt end," Johnson says. Now the work of smoking his hams is finished, but waiting has just begun.

For hams he bought at 94 cents a pound in January, he charges $2.19 a pound by fall, 20 cents under the local price of a Smithfield ham. Of the 200-plus hams he'll sell this season, Johnson figures that only five will go to Covesville customers. Plus there's the one he and his wife provide for the annual church homecoming. For his own family's holiday dinners, Johnson saves back hams through two years of hanging.

"You need that hot summer temperature to dry the meat out," Johnson says. "Packing companies put water into a ham. We take it out. That's why hams processed nature's way taste so different."

The flavor and texture of an aged Virginia ham just can't be compared with brine-packed, processed hams. For one thing, because the smoking and soaking happen from the outside in, a single big ham will not taste the same through and through. Outside meat will be dark red and fibrous. As you slice into it, the meat grows tender and mild. The inner core of Johnson's hams has a soft, smoky flavor and texture almost reminiscent of liverwurst or pa te'. The flavor is distinctive, undeniably salty, best served thinly sliced. An average ham weighs over 15 pounds, even after it has hung and dried through the summer, so you can plan on using a Virginia country ham for many meals.

Along with each ham that J.D. Johnson sells, he includes a recipe card, "To Cook an Old Ham," by Mrs. Duval Johnson. It outlines a way of cooking Virginia country hams quite different from the traditional stove-top simmer method.

"I was very leery when I first heard of this slow-cook method," Louise Johnson says, her lips still as red, her eyebrows still as dramatic, as in the tinted portrait from many years ago that J.D. Johnson keeps at his rolltop desk in the corner of the store.

"But once I tried it, I was convinced. And when you think about it, it just makes sense. When you boil a ham on top of the stove, you boil the flavor right out of it."

Her recommendations, after cooking, include getting a butcher to remove the bone for you, then slicing it as thin as possible. "I'm lucky," she says. "He does that for me."

But even if you slice into your old Virginia country ham with your own set of carving knives, you'll find it worth the effort. The salt and molasses, those shades of hickory smoke, those months of weathering through cold and sweat, not to mention the hours of hewing, tending, turning, hanging, setting the fire and letting it die down, make country hams like J.D. Johnson's a rare Virginia treat.

TO COOK AN OLD HAM (By Mrs. Duval Johnson)

Soak ham in large amount of water 1 1/2 to 2 days, depending on size of ham, changing water at least twice a day. A laundry sink, a large washtub, a 5-gallon bucket, even your bathtub offers enough space. But the roasting pan doesn't -- it won't give enough room for the proportion of water to ham needed to soak salt out of the ham.

Scrub ham well with stiff brush, at least once during the course of soaking. Unless hurried, you may just want to scrub it, particularly the rindless portion of meat, each time you change the water.

Place ham in large heavy pan, skin side up. You will do well to have a butcher cut off the two bone ends for you before cooking, or cut them off yourself with a saw or cleaver. The ham will fit better in the pan and the meat shrinks back from the bone ends anyway.

Add 5 cups of water to the ham in the pan. Cover the pan and place in a 375-degree oven. Turn oven to 500 degrees. Cook ham 1 minute per pound plus 2 extra minutes. (For instance, a 15-pound ham takes 15 minutes plus 2 equals 17 minutes at this stage.)

Now turn off the oven, but don't open the oven door or the cover of the roasting pan. Leave the ham in the oven and leave the oven turned off for 3 hours. Then turn it up to 500 degrees again for the same amount of time as before.

Once again, turn off oven but do not open oven door. Let ham remain in oven overnight.

Considering the cooking schedule required, it seems most convenient to start this process at about 5 or 6 p.m. the day before you want to serve the ham.

The next day, you may refrigerate the ham for later or dress it immediately with a glaze like the one described below. Remove tough outer hide with sharp knife or kitchen shears. Remove excess fat under hide as desired. Dress ham and brown it in a 375-degree oven another 15 minutes to crisp it before serving.

COUNTRY HAM DRESSING 2 cups toasted bread crumbs (may be made by crisping 12 slices of white or brown bread in oven, then crumbling) 1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice, cloves Pinch of dry mustard 1/4 cup orange juice, white wine, or sherry

Blend all together and gently press all over the surface of the ham. Brown dressed ham briefly at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.

COUNTRY HAM BISCUITS (About 3 dozen)

A traditional way to use all that leftover country ham. 2 1/2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup melted butter 2/3 cup buttermilk Leftover country ham

Mix together dry ingredients, then mix together wet ingredients. Pour the wet mixture into the center of the dry, then beat together briefly. Knead the dough for a minute. Roll out flat to a thickness of 1/2 inch, then cut with round biscuit cutter or guide a knife around the base of a glass. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

Break biscuits open, butter lightly, and fill with 3 or 4 thin slices of ham. Mustard and mayonnaise don't belong in the traditional ham biscuit.