Prosciutto is to Italy as a burger is to America, a crepe is to France or ramen is to Japan. The naturally marbled ham delicately aromatic with nuances of dried fruit and barley malt, sliced so paper-thin, if you held a strip in the air you could practically see your dinner guest through the pinkish meat is ubiquitous throughout the land.
Perfectly balanced with sweet and savory notes, this delicacy is served at every meal – with fresh figs and melons for breakfast, on a crusty roll for lunch, or blended with pasta or risotto for dinner – you’ll never meet a prosciutto you didn’t like.
The moist, fragrant air of the bucolic hills surrounding Parma provide the perfect conditions for curing, while the ancient art of charcuterie passed down from generations of skilled master butchers has created one of the culinary masterpieces for which this region is world famous.
Let me share my experiences through prosciutto land as I toured a charcuterie museum and production facility (Fattoria Ca’Dante) in the mountainous countryside of Modena (40 miles southeast of Parma), then pigging out with a luscious lunch of the melt-in-your-mouth velvety slices.
The Saintly Swine: During the Middle Ages the pig had been targeted as the embodiment of evil spirits, until Saint Anthony, patron of farm animals, vindicated the pig for being wrongly maligned. Every year on St. Anthony’s Day, porcines are to be spared from slaughter. A large statue of the beloved pig is displayed in the center of the village across from the church in Modena near the Museo della Salumeria. This three-floor charcuterie museum was built by the Villani Salumi Company, a family business that has been dedicated to curing meats since 1886 to pay tribute to this ancient culinary art.
Get a Leg Up: It is typically a 10-stage process from pigsty to table. Only certain breeds of pig are suitable to become prosciutto ham. The fresh hind leg is sent to a cooling room, trimmed of excess fat and skin, then transported to a curing house where it is seasoned with both humid and dry salts. Washed, dried and then hung on wooden frames called “scalere,” and sometimes greased with a mixture of lard, salt and pepper they are transported to dry “cellars” where enzymatic processes create an aromatic delight. Finally, after 12 months, an expert uses a horse bone needle to ensure that the prosciutto is ready to be branded with the certification stamp.
A Tale of Two Hams: There are two kinds of prosciutto each regulated by the Consortium of the region where they are produced – Prosciutto di San Daniele and Prosciutto di Parma. The former cures in northern, drier conditions, producing a leaner, savory ham, while the latter cures in the moist, humid Parma air creating a softer, more marbleized, richer meat. Prepared with only Italian pigs and natural sea salt prosciutto is easily digestible, and has a mother lode of protein, B vitamins, phosphorous, zinc and fluid-balancing potassium.
Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room: Speck, also called “farmer’s bacon” is the new prosciutto, a smoky-style riff on the traditional Italian cured ham. According to Matthias Messmer, director of Speck Consortium Alto Adige, “the smoky, tasteful barbecue flavor of Speck really appeals to the American palate, and is growing in popularity both in Canada and the U.S.” While Speck is also from the hind leg of the hog, the bone is removed before the curing process, which takes place in the delicate climatic region of the valleys of Alto Adige, where the hams are hand-rubbed with a blend of salt, pepper, bay leaves, rosemary and juniper berries, then cold-smoked with beech wood, and exposed to fresh valley air. The aging process is around 22 weeks, where hams hang in special temperature-controlled rooms to mature.
Prosciutto and Green Pea Risotto
1 cup Arborio (or Carnaroli) rice
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil or unsalted butter
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
4 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
2 ounces prosciutto di parma, sliced in ¼-inch ribbons from
1 handful fresh chopped Italian parsley
Zest from one lemon
Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Method: Heat oil or butter in a heavy skillet and sauté onions for one minute. Add rice, coating the grains with the oil. Over medium heat, stir in wine until absorbed. Add remaining liquid one cup at a time, stirring constantly until absorbed. Remove from heat and stir in cheese, peas, prosciutto, and seasonings. Garnish with zest and parsley.