Prosciutto: A Lean, Tasty Salume

POSTED August 24, 2014

One of the healthiest varieties of Italian air-cured meats, or salume, Prosciutto is a household name in most of Italy with many types of protected origin such as: Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Prosciutto Toscano, etc.

By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti

    It is practically impossible for any Italian household with kids to prevent the routine raiding of the refrigerator’s prosciutto. It’s simply irresistible for children—and most adults. Prosciutto crudo is one of the most delicious, lean, and healthy varieties of typical Italian salume (air-cured meats) that there is. There are seven major types of prosciutti (plural form) in Italy that carry the D.O.P. label (translated as Denomination of Protected Origin), ensuring authenticity of origin and the strictest standards of production—plus there are a plethora of other good quality prosciutti that are often sold as “prosciutto di montagna” which means “mountain prosciutto.” The seven international superstars are: Prosciutto di Parma—simply referred to as “Parma” in Italy; Prosciutto di San Daniele (from the region of Frioul)—just called “San Daniele” here; Prosciutto di Modena (from Emilia–Romagna); Prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo (from Veneto); Prosciutto di Carpegna (from Marche); Prosciutto Toscano (from Tuscany); and Jambon de Bosses (from Val d’Aosta). Parma and San Daniele are without a doubt the most demanded and renowned in Italy and abroad. But, besides all the celebrities, we must not neglect to mention the excellent Prosciutto di Norcia (Umbria) that bears an I.G.P. seal of “Protected Geographical Indication”—another highly esteemed European certification guaranteeing authenticity. All these prosciutti—together with Culatello di Zibello and Speck dell’Alto Adige—are considered to be the nobility of Italian salumeria.   

The term prosciutto comes from the Latin word “perexsuctum” which means “prosciugato” in Italian, or “dried thoroughly.” There are two forms of prosciutti—“crudo,” which means “raw” or “uncooked;” and “cotto” which means “cooked.” Prosciutto cotto is a relatively recent variety, but also very appreciated. (For more about this, see the article on “Cooked and pre-cooked salumeria”). The origins of prosciutto crudo go back at least to pre-Roman, Etruscan times; that is, almost three thousand years ago in Italy. Until just a few generations ago, its production remained entirely artisanal. Today, the same work is done on an industrial scale, in part due to the global demand. Of course, it’s impossible to know if prosciutto crudo actually tasted better in previous times or today, but we do know that the quality controls are stricter today than they were centuries ago. Nowadays, every step in the production is performed by the prosciuttai (prosciutto makers) with exacting care and skill, and monitored by the consortiums to ensure that each prosciutto satisfies the most demanding consumer.

The care and vigilance begins long before the curing process begins. One of the most important aspects of the laws regulating prosciutto production requires that the hogs are born and bred in specific areas of Italy, and not imported from abroad. There are very stringent regulations about the conditions in which the animals are raised and the way they are fed since this greatly affects the final product. After the hogs reach a minimum weight of 160 kilos (350 pounds), they are butchered and the salting and curing process begins. The making of prosciutto can take up to 16 months, in some cases even more. Only the posterior legs are used—and all that is needed is a cool environment, salt and time. There are absolutely no additives or preservatives used in making an authentic prosciutto crudo, D.O.P.—just salt, which is rubbed manually over the entire leg every day for a month. Sometimes the prosciutti are pressed or flattened, and then they are washed and hung to dry for 8 to 16 months in an environment where the temperature and humidity is carefully monitored. During this period the sugnatura is applied. The sugna is a mixture of salt, pepper, pork fat and sometimes herbs, depending on the type of prosciutto, which is spread over the exposed part of the pork leg—that is, the upper side of the thigh that is not covered by thick skin. This procedure is done to slow down the drying and to avoid the meat from cracking. Ultimately, each prosciutto is branded with its own identifying symbol: for example, the San Daniele stamp is an “SD” inside the outline of a prosciutto; the Parma insignia is a ducal crown.

To say that prosciutto crudo is enormously popular in Italy is almost an understatement. This delicacy is as ingrained in Italy’s culinary DNA as pasta—and the enjoyment of it starts just about as early in a young Italian’s life. Like Parmigiano Reggiano and extra-virgin olive oil, prosciutto crudo is so natural and healthy that it is one of the first adult foods that babies are given to eat in Italy. There are prosciutti for all palates here; when ordering prosciutto crudo at the salumeria section (what we call the “deli counter”) of the grocery store, one is usually asked: “dolce o saporito?”—that is, “sweet or savory.” Generally, the sweeter varieties are the more highly demanded, and the less salty types preferred. Parma is the most favored brand by Italian consumers.

 Prosciutto crudo is often eaten just as it is, or possibly wrapped around a grissino (breadstick) or just a slice or two placed on a piece of fresh white bread. It’s delicious with melone (cantaloupe) or figs, and it’s an unfailing hit in the typical antipasto misto (mixed appetizer plate). Prosciutto crudo is also a key ingredient in a few classic recipes, such as saltimbocca alla Romana (veal scaloppini); it’s also extremely popular served in a variety of panini (sandwiches), and even as a topping on pizza. It’s also occasionally used as a final touch on a few pasta dishes, such as tortellini alla panna (tortellini with cream sauce).

Here are a few tips for the newly initiated prosciutto devotee: The color of the meat comes in a variety of reddish pink tonalities; the fat should be white to pinkish, but never yellow, which is a sign of being rancid. When cleaned, most of the fat of the prosciutto should be left on and eaten; the fat is an essential part of the enjoyment of prosciutto (analogous to the fat in bacon). It should be sliced thinly, but not too thin, as this will make it impossible to separate the slices and serve it properly. Prosciutto is best consumed at room temperature so that its luscious flavor can be fully appreciated.