Three months after a fire ripped through Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, destroying its inventory of prized Surryano hams, the company reopened its retail shop in Surry, Va., on Thursday with a limited line of pork products.
The relaunch of the Edwards Ham Shop is the first step toward recovery for the 90-year-old business, best known for that Surryano ham, a hickory-smoked-and-aged product that chefs have compared favorably to the finest Spanish and Italian cured meats.
“We’ve been kind of baby-stepping this thing along,” said Keith Roberts, national wholesale sales manager for Edwards. “Every small victory we have, we know that’s one more step in the process” toward normal operations.
Most of the products now available at the Surry shop — and to a select number of wholesale clients in Virginia — are processed from whole, bone-in country hams that Edwards had stored in a facility separate from the smokehouse, Roberts said. About 14,000 of those country hams (a different kind of cured pork that’s aged less than the Surryano) had been stored off-site. But the company couldn’t put those products on the market until the U.S. Department of Agriculture signed off on new package labels that include a processing plant number different from the one for Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, Roberts said.
No Surryanos had been stored off-site, and approximately 7,000 of the pricey hams, made from fatty Berkshire hogs, went up in flames in the Jan. 19 blaze, which some locals are dryly calling the “biggest grease fire ever.” Roberts said only a limited supply of sliced Surryano ham, in four-ounce packages, is available.
Washington chefs will have to wait a little longer before Edwards begins shipping products to the region. “We are extremely close to making that happen,” Roberts said.
The Edwards team hopes the 14,000 country hams will allow the company to sell pork products until a new smokehouse is operational, perhaps within a year. Construction has not started.
Roberts said there was never any question that Sam Edwards III, president of the company, would rebuild the historic smokehouse. The company was founded in 1926, just a year after Samuel Wallace Edwards Sr. started selling ham sandwiches to passengers on his Jamestown-Scotland ferry. Edwards III was attending a meeting of the National Country Ham Association and was unavailable for comment.
Mark Seward, chief of the Surry Volunteer Fire Department, says an insurance company investigation of the fire was inconclusive. No cause could be determined.
While the Edwards team fine-tunes plans for a return to full operations, company officials have been pondering the idea of curing, if not smoking and aging, the famed Surryano hams elsewhere, Roberts said. It’s a not an easy decision to make: The smokehouse structure’s controlled temperature and humidity were carefully engineered to mimic the annual weather patterns around Surry. Replicating that environment might not be easy.
Jeremiah Langhorne, chef and owner of the Dabney in the District’s Blagden Alley, had toured Edwards Virginia Smokehouse before the fire. He knows that the facility’s temperature-and-humidity-controlled rooms were the secret behind the company’s deeply flavored Surryano hams. Another place could not easily replace that smokehouse.
“When it comes to aging products like that,” Langhorne said, “there’s really something special about carrying on the tradition in the same facility.”
But Sam Edwards III and his crew don’t have that luxury. They’ll have to start from scratch. The task before them is not just about rebuilding a company, Roberts said. It’s about reviving a 90-year-old business that helps support the local community and serves as a source of pride: proof that a small Virginia smokehouse can compete on the world’s stage with its cured meats.
“We’re confident that we’ll be able to maintain the same flavor profile” for Surryano ham at the new smokehouse, Roberts said. “You can’t keep a good ham man down.”
A previous version of this article quoted Stephen Johnson, assistant fire chief for the Surry Volunteer Fire Department, as saying the investigation into the fire is ongoing. That statement was inaccurate and has been corrected.