The story of Prosciutto – Learn more about Prosciutto

If Salumi were a royal family then prosciutto would be king. Prosciutto is Italian for a salt cured and air-dried hind leg of pork. The plural is prosciutti. They are made across Italy. Where there are pigs, salt and the right climatic conditions, you will find people making prosciutto. They have been made there for millennia. At the rise of the Roman Empire the Romans bought their prosciutti from Etruscans to the north, in what is now Tuscany.

For Italians, prosciutto is a food that is eaten everyday. Perhaps a little slice at breakfast or some good prosciutto in a sandwich or bread at lunchtime. At dinner at the start of a meal some really good finely sliced prosciutto may be laced around a quartered fig or slice of fragrant melon. Prosciutto usually refers to prosciutto crudo, meaning that it salt cured, air dried and raw, not cooked. In Italy prosciutto cotto, or cooked ham, is beginning to become more popular. Of the millions of prosciutti made every year the greatest proportion is consumed in Italy with around only 10% being exported.

Italy is the home of prosciutto. The way the Italians talk about prosciutto is about simplicity and climate. They understand that as little as possible should be done to the leg in order to cure it. They use a very, very simple and ancient preserving agent. It’s called salt. No other preserving agents. Just salt. Salt draws out the moisture and stops the bad bacteria. The word ‘prosciutto’ comes from the Latin exsuctus meaning “lacking juice, dried up”. While prosciutto is made across Italy, the Italians understand that certain parts of the Italian Peninsula are better suited to curing pork than others. Some towns have winds that flow down from the mountains or blow in from the coast curing the prosciutto with slight variations leading to different flavour profiles. To protect the quality of prosciutto coming from these regions they have developed strict food laws outlined in D.O.P. or Denominazione di Origine Protetta. These determine everything from feed to breed to size of the legs to curing times. Only prosciutti that meet these stringent requirements are allowed to be given the firebrand representing that D.O.P.

Prosciutto di Parma D.O.P.
This is one of Italy’s most famous products. A salt-cured and air dried ham that is rosy pink in colour renowned for its smooth mouthfeel and porky flavour, wonderful mouth-watering deliciousness and lingering savoury flavour. By law it can only be made by 300 or so member manufacturers based in the hills surrounding Parma, a city in North East Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Prosciutti have been made around this city for centuries, curing in the winds that flow across the Italian Peninsula. For a prosciutto to receive the Parma D.O.P. crown firebrand it must be made from a pig raised in one of 10 approved growing regions in central northern Italy. The pigs must be from specially bred Large White, Landrance and Duroc breeds. They must be fed on a regulated blend of grains, cereals and whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production. The pigs are large, at least 9 months old and weighing in at a minimum of 140kg. Tracking each leg that enters the system starts soon after the pig is born when their legs are tattooed within 30 days. At the abattoir the legs deemed good enough for the Parma DOP are given a firebrand. The legs are taken to the curing house where they taken from just above 0¬¬C to around 4C, are trimmed and massaged with sea salt by the salt master. The massaging not only helps remove blood from inside the leg but also helps the salt penetrate the flesh. There are only four ingredients used in making Prosciutto di Parma D.O.P.: Italian pork; sea salt; air and time. By law no preservatives, such as nitrates or nitrites are permitted. It is the salt that stops bad bacteria from spoiling the flesh. On the day curing starts a metal stud is inserted into the leg. After the first salting the legs are allowed to cure horizontally for around a week. The legs are cleaned down and given a second salting then placed vertically in a special curing room for a further month. From here they are hung in controlled atmosphere drying rooms where the prosciutti are slowly cured. After four months or so the face of the prosciutto without skin, where the leg was connected to the pelvis, is coated in a mix of rice flour, salt, pepper and lard – la sugna. This stops the flesh from drying out too quickly and the prosciutto to cure evenly. The prosciutti are air dried for a minimum of 12 months after which they are assessed using an age-old technique. A tester inserts a horse bone needle into five points across samples of the prosciutto testing for fine texture. They also sniff the needle at each point. Any ham could be rejected if the tester does not think the prosciutto smells perfect. This process sees the flesh transformed from raw pork to a dried product that has an attractive ruby colour, attractive aroma and delicious flavour. Over this period an 11 kilogram leg will lose around 4kg to end up a 7kg prosciutto.

Once the prosciutto has matured enough it is then prepared for packaging. By Australian law cured meats must be bone free. At this point the bone is carefully removed and the prosciutto moulded back into the leg or addobbo shape or the more familiar flat pressed shape.

A 14 month Prosciutto di Parma is the perfect product to lay over a top level pizza when the warmth of the pizza activates the tempting aromas and savoury flavours. An older Prosciutto di Parma, around 24 months, is slightly firmer to slice, holds it shape and has more developed flavour making it a perfect companion to figs and crostini. Every year around 9 million Prosciutti di Parma D.O.P. are produced making it the everyday and accessible slice of great quality for prosciutto loving Italians and Australians.

Prosciutto di San Danielle D.O.P.
This prosciutto is famous for its sweet taste, delicate, almost floral aroma and attractive pink flesh. Prosciutto di San Danielle D.O.P. is made around the town of San Danielle del Friuli, a town in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in North East Italy. The town sits between the Carnic Alps and the Adriatic Sea where the winds create the perfect microclimate for making prosciutto. For many Prosciutto di San Danielle is an exceptional product. The number of members of the consortium is just 27. They pay a premium for their legs, all sourced, by law, from 10 neighbouring regions. The pigs, Landrace, Large White and Duroc are fed on a mix of grains and whey. The legs must have a minimum cover of 15mm of good, white fat to help protect the leg during the ageing process. Unlike most other prosciutto this one is cured with the trotter on. The legs are tattooed and branded to track their provenance, given their first salting and massage by the salt master then laid down on their side for 7 days or so. The leg is also gently pressed to form its characteristic guitar shape. The second salting, however, is done at much higher humidity. The moisture in the air combines with the salt to disperse evenly. This creates a ‘softer’ curing process and a more delicate prosciutto.

The prosciutti are matured for a minimum of 13 months, again with the open face of the leg covered in a mixture of salt, pepper, rice meal and lard. For many Italians Prosciutto di San Danielle aged at 16 months is their favourite, a perfect balance of the sweet and aromatic qualities of the flesh and its texture. When aged a little more, perhaps to 20 months, its texture is a little more firm and easier to handle. As with the Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di San Danielle is quality controlled using the traditional horse bone needle technique. Many more hams are rejected by the manufacturers in the consortium than others with around 20% of the legs being rejected prior to curing and a considerable percentage of cured hams considered not good enough to be accepted as San Danielle prosciutto. Only the prosciutto that passes all the quality control is given the guitar shaped fire brand encasing the initials SD – the mark of Prosciutto di San Danielle D.O.P..