IN CULPEPER, VA., THE TYPICAL HAM "TEA BISCUIT" consists of a thin slice of country ham folded within a soft, yeast roll.

At a church social in Wye Mills, Md., country ham is far more likely to be served on a firm, "beaten" biscuit.

And bakery customers in Aldie, near Middleburg, expect buttery, flaky biscuits. They would not want their country ham presented any other way.

Soft, firm or flaky, biscuits are something people are particular about when it comes to pairing them with country ham -- the smoke-scented, dry-cured, aged and notoriously salty rear leg of a pig -- the style of pork that was made famous by the English settlers of Jamestown, Va., and later Smithfield.

And, apparently, the choice of biscuit need not be based on geographic or economic factors.

"It all depends on who your mama is," says Heidi Trull, owner and chef of Elizabeth's, a breakfast/lunch cafe in the Bywater section of New Orleans noted for fist-size buttermilk biscuits. She believes her heavy, yet flaky biscuits "stand up to ham just like my grandmother's did."

For catered events Trull uses a Champagne flute to cut the biscuit dough, which is "neither kneaded nor worked." After baking, she splits the bite-size biscuits and places them cut-side down on a hot griddle to crisp the inside. Before serving, she "slathers them" with mayonnaise and places a thin slice of ham between the layers.

Closer to home, in Aldie, flaky biscuits are also highly regarded. But please, hold the mayo.

"My customers say you never, ever put mayonnaise on a country ham biscuit," says Kay Pitts, co-owner of Little Apple Pastry Shop, a hunt country bakery where condiment-free ham biscuits are always on the menu (see below for resources).

Says Pitts: "Mine is a baking powder biscuit with a little yeast, a true biscuit, dusted with flour on top. They complement ham perfectly."

A seemingly perfect combination of flaky biscuit and salty ham appeals to many Washington area caterers.

Capitol Catering president Sara McGregor favors a "petite" buttermilk biscuit brushed with a tangerine/sage-flavored mayonnaise. Seana Bull, director of sales at Catering by Windows, would serve country ham on a "mini" buttermilk biscuit studded with crystalized ginger and a choice of fruit chutneys on the side.

"I'd go with a light, bite-size cream biscuit," says Susan Gage, owner of Susan Gage Caterers. "I wouldn't think of using a roll."

Still, rolls are not to be ruled out.

"True biscuits are too crumbly. That's not good at a cocktail party," says Washington caterer Becky Hamill, a native of Roanoke, a city where "country ham is served at every party." She prefers a simple, bite-size yeast roll that, confusingly enough, is called a tea biscuit.

"This is a roll that works because it's soft and it doesn't interfere with the taste of the ham," she says.

According to Hamill, "the best tea biscuits in the world" are made by Plantation Bakery, a wholesale operation in Roanoke. They are sold with country ham at Tinnell's Finer Foods, a Roanoke grocery. Hamill also recommends "the perfect size" of Pepperidge Farm Party Rolls for ham tea biscuits.

And no matter what size the party, she brushes each roll with melted butter before adding a thin slice of ham. She always heats the finished ham biscuits briefly in the oven before serving, insisting "Ham biscuits should always be served warm and be passed by waiters, not piled on a platter on the buffet table."

Rose Foster of Washington, Va., agrees with Hamill that rolls are the way to go.

"Around here people like them on a roll because you can leave them on the car seat for hours, eat them when you like. There's no mess," says Foster, co-owner of Hillsdale Grocery. For 20 years she has sold between three and four dozen country ham biscuits per day to people on the go. As for flaky biscuits: "They take the flavor of the ham away," she says.

Country ham purveyor Tom Calhoun prefers his ham to be served on a roll as well. "Everyone in Culpeper calls them ham biscuits but they are really rolls," says Calhoun, owner of Calhoun's Ham House.

Calhoun predicts, no matter what turns the economy takes, that he will sell 1,700 to 1,800, 14- to 17-pound, dry-cured and aged country hams between Nov. 1 and New Year's. During that same time period, he will sell between 4,000 and 5,000 ham biscuits per week. "The ups and downs don't affect the ham business," says Calhoun.

He calls the thin, flat-topped rolls (tea biscuits) that he purchases from Knakal's Bakery in Culpeper "the real thing." And then: "I haven't found anything better."

At 9 a.m. on a recent morning Dwayne Whitt, co-owner of Knakal's is rolling out a 20-pound wad of blubbery dough, which will become simple, brown rolls with a fluffy center -- Culpeper's biscuit of choice.

"There's no secret to it. It's just something to hold the ham," says Whitt, whose family purchased the bakery business 25 years ago. He works alongside father Kenneth, mother Linda, wife Beth and 13 employees who ice wedding cakes, bake bread and squirt the jelly in doughnuts as a team.

The Whitts' roll recipe calls for bread flour, vegetable shortening, sugar, salt, water, milk powder and fresh yeast. "Use the dry yeast and it doesn't work. They don't rise. They just sit there," says Whitt.

As in any bakery, flour flies as he flattens the dough. Whitt then shows his ability to cut biscuits at lightning pace. Behind him, trays of tea biscuits, in shades from beige to golden brown, revolve in a vintage Middleby Marshall, cast-iron and porcelain revolving oven.

Biscuit sales, which account for 10 percent of Knakal's business most of the year, grow 10 times to 5,000 dozen biscuits per week during the holiday season.

"We're making biscuits 12 to 14 hours a day, just making biscuits," says Whitt. "The girls will start yelling: 'Please. Don't make any more biscuits. We're tired of packing them.' "

Beaten biscuits are another story.

In the shadow of the more than 460-year-old Wye Oak, designated by the state of Maryland as the largest white oak tree in the country, the Orrell family of Wye Mills keeps the southern tradition of beaten biscuits alive.

Orrell's Maryland Beaten Biscuits produces firm, dense, golf-ball-size breads that many recommend as a partner for country ham.

It was in 1935 that schoolteacher Ruth Orrell, who died last Thanksgiving Day at age 98, opened her Eastern Shore business in the home she shared with her husband, Herman, a milkman.

Following a recipe passed down for generations -- and similar to one popularized in the era of southern plantations -- she mixed the ingredients, which include lard, into an elastic dough.

Wielding a seven-pound blacksmith's hammer, she folded, then beat and refolded and further pounded the dough with a regular motion for 35 minutes or more atop a table fashioned by her husband from a slab of white oak. Beaten biscuit traditionalists also favored the back end of an ax and a designated tree stump.

"My grandmother was a very strong woman," says company president Betsy Orrell Skinner, who often gives tours of the home/bakery to school groups. "She knew that when you beat down, you trap air in, and the longer you beat the dough the lighter the biscuits are."

For the Orrells, hand-beating is a piece of beaten biscuit history. A belt-driven machine (a homemade contraption, really) has successfully done the job since 1940. "The beater" commands a place of honor in the "biscuit room" -- a former chicken coop that has been renovated and connected to the kitchen, where the ovens are located.

There is one problem: This old beater makes a racket.

"You can't hear yourself think," says Mary Holtzclaw, who raises her voice above the drone. Holtzclaw, a biscuitmaker for 36 years, is one of four women who hand-form the biscuits -- kneading, pinching and rolling the dough into smooth balls.

When the beater is cut off there is a collective sigh. Then: "Well, thank the Lord for that."

And like Knakal's bakery in Culpeper and Little Apple Pastry Shop in Aldie, sales rise dramatically at Orrell's during the holiday season. Workers plan to make at least 500 dozen beaten biscuits per week for retail and mail-order customers.

Occasionally, first-time customers are not aware that beaten biscuits are very firm and somewhat dry. "Some people don't understand beaten biscuits. Some people just don't like them," says Betsy Orrell Skinner. "Still, we get more positive than negative feedback."

This season the Orrells expect even more orders. Beaten biscuits have a long, some say indefinite, shelf life. They predict some customers will add a few bags of biscuits to their emergency pantry. Such biscuits also ship well.

"Our sales increased during the Korean and Vietnam wars. We got a lot of orders for overseas," says company secretary Peggy Orrell. "Soldiers write their parents and say 'Man, I'd give anything for a beaten biscuit and some country ham.' "

Whether you prefer your country ham to ride on a yeast roll, a beaten biscuit or a buttery, flaky biscuit may depend on your upbringing.At Orrell's bakery in Wye Mills in Maryland, Dick Orrell jokes with Mary Holtzclaw, left, and Marie Sherwood, two of the four women who form biscuits by hand.