IT BEGAN WITH A VIRGINIA country ham cured in the highland manner, without smoke, that had hung for months in a barn with a coating of salt, pepper and sugar. My wife scrubbed it, boiled it in water and cider, skinned it, cut grooves in the fat and baked it. The ham was intensely flavorful, more than a match for any wine we could think of. An off-dry riesling will pleasantly wash down such saline exuberance, but not stand up to it; a good California zinfandel will last longer but be defeated in the end. We considered champagne, a kind of frothy intermission between bites, and finally settled on hard cider as the ideal accompaniment -- slightly sweet, effervescent, with some alcohol to cut through the taste of the meat and the salt.
Cider belongs to a category sometimes called "specialty wines" -- indigenous drinks usually made from berries, plums, pears, honey and even citrus fruit. They lack finesse, though not necessarily delicacy, and can be very good. Cider supposedly comes from the Hebrew word "shekhar," meaning "strong drink." It is made from fermented apple juice and for two centuries before the Civil War competed with beer as the favorite strong drink among Americans, who took it with meals and even offered it to the children.
In Normandy, more cider than wine is still drunk. The British drink great quantities of hard cider from apples grown for that purpose. In France and Great Britain, as well as in Spain and America, producers of "apple wine" induce secondary fermentation in the bottle by adding sugar. The resulting cider is usually quite sweet and fairly alcoholic, with more froth than body. Many are available here.
The local contender we found was Chesapeake Hard Cider, and it is a very good one, made in Baltimore by a former economist for the Federal Trade Commission named James Case. Case, 45, made a trip to British Columbia four years ago, where cider consumption is high. That fact, and the taste of it, inspired a career change from number-crunching to something more salubrious -- Stayman and Winesap apples from Maryland orchards. "I decided to go after 1 or 2 percent of Maryland's beer drinkers," Case says, with a product similar to the one in Canada. So far he has sold 6,000 gallons of Chesapeake Hard Cider for about $5 a six- pack -- less than wine coolers and infinitely better.
Case buys his apple juice from one producer, over which he has some quality control, and then ferments it in his own tanks in the back of a rented printer's shop outside Baltimore. He trucks the unpasteurized cider to the bottling plant, where a small amount of carbon dioxide is introduced and the cider stabilized by showering the bottles with hot water. Clear and coppery in color, it has only a slight effervescence and sweetness, and enough character to be mixed with soda water if a light aperitif is desired. The alcohol level is 6.5 percent, higher than beer nowadays but less than that of the foreign competition.
Chesapeake Hard Cider may be less sophisticated than imported apple wines, but it stands up to highland country ham served with American accouterments such as sweet potatoes baked with apple slices and, yes, a dollop of hard cider.