Ham it up for Christmas

Reporter: Laura Sparkes

It's time to buy the Christmas ham again and the choice is huge. Prices range from as little as $4.99 a kilo up to $15.

But what makes a good Christmas ham, which one will last the longest and how can you make a decision based on the look of it?

"It might sound funny but I'm lured towards a good shape. Something long and skinny is not appealing, something short and stumpy is very good."

Len Pope sounds like he's talking about his preference in women but this butcher of 35 years is lovingly talking about his homemade hams.

"I consider my hams look beautiful because of the colour and shape," adds Len.

"I'm one of six kids we all grew up with the smell of ham, our clothes smelling, our house smelling, our car smelling." Its almost an obsession for David Lucas, a second generation small ham processor. "For our family it's become a big deal, were not obsessed but we are quite passionate."

Christmas time for butchers is big business. Everyone is looking for a good ham at the cheapest price. These butchers know the science behind it and believe they have the best advice.

"You must have fat, fat is very important for a nice ham, anything without fat will tend to be drier," says David.

"My smoked ham comes from free range pigs, they're a smaller pig and they're all female, the male pigs have a lot of testosterone which can take the flavour," says Len.

"Leg ham on the bone is by far the best, it will retain moisture when its cooked," says David.

"The colour should be bright pink," says Len.

Fresh is best and David explains how to pick a freshly packed ham.

"If it looks pale it may mean its a bit older than what it should be. You can tell the age of it a lot of the times by how much moisture is in there and obviously there is a bit of moisture here [so thats an older ham] an older ham."

"If its tight it means theres a strong vacuum and it will last longer."

These hams are made from local and imported meat.

"A lot of consumers don't realise that when they're buying ham or bacon, it's often coming from overseas."

CEO of Australian Pork Ltd, Andrew Spencer, warns consumers about the record levels of cheap pork imports.

"Most of the time that product is coming from countries that subsidise their agriculture, subsidise their pig production so that when it comes into the country it has a devastating effect on our industry locally," says Andrew.

The imported off cuts end up in hams made by large processors months ago and sold cheaply at supermarkets. It's hams like these that caused a massive drop in the price for Australian pork a year ago, forcing some farmers out of the industry.

"Buy it on the bone, because if it's on the bone it's guaranteed to be Australian for quarantine reasons - imports don't come in on a bone into the country," says Andrew.

"Or if its not on a bone, look for the product of Australia label, if it has a made in Australia label, it doesn't mean the meat has been grown in Australia."

Cheap imports aren't their only worry. Butchers have also been hit with new regulations for the testing of listeria if they want to vacuum seal their hams, for longer life.

"Listeria is a bug that can come into the meat, especially when its stored for a long time, when we've been able to vacuum pack hams you can store them for 3 or 4 months, which means there's a big chance of listeria," says Andrew.

The testing is too expensive for small butchers so they either have to stop vacuum packing or get bigger producers to cook and cryovac the hams for them at extra cost.

So once you've chosen your ham and opened it up on Christmas day, how do you make it last?

"You must take the plastic off straight away. In the plastic bag it will spoil very quickly you might lose it by the end of the week. Put it in a wet tea towel maybe with some vinegar, or a pillowcase - it will keep for 3 or 4 weeks longer like that," advises David.