Prosciutto is an Italian ‘dry-cured’ ham. We all know Prosciutto di Parma or Parma Ham. The ham is the Italian variant of the Spanish jamon Iberico and jamon serrano. It is one of the most expensive foods and/or Italian hams.
People prefer to consume prosciutto thinly sliced and served uncooked. Italians call this ‘prosciutto crudo’ (or simply ‘crudo’). Cooked ham is ‘prosciutto cotto’.
The writer on Italian food, Bill Buford, describes in his book ‘Heat‘ talking to an old Italian butcher who says:
“When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto. It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. Unmistakable. To age a prosciutto is a subtle business. If it’s too warm, the aging process never begins. The meat spoils. If it’s too dry, the meat is ruined. It needs to be damp but cool. The summer is too hot. In the winter—that’s when you make salumi. Your prosciutto. Your soppressata. Your sausages.”Bill Buford, 2006
Well-known Prosciutto and Italian Hams in General
A number of regions have their own variations of prosciutto. Each with degrees of protected status.
The two famous and most prized types of Italian prosciutto crudo are:
- Prosciutto di Parma, PDO from Parma
- Prosciutto di San Daniele, PDO from the San Daniele del Friuli area, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
The prosciutto di Parma has a slightly nutty flavor from the Parmigiano Reggiano whey. Producers add that sometimes to the pigs’ diet. On the other hand, the prosciutto di San Daniele, though, is darker in color and sweeter in flavor. For both of them, the product specifications completely prohibit additives such as nitrite and nitrate. Those are often present in unprotected products.
However, there are many more prosciuttos (we should actually say ‘prosciutti’ in Italian), each slightly different in color, flavor, and texture, like:
- Prosciutto di Modena, Italy, PDO
- Prosciutto Toscano, Italy, PDO
- Prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo, Italy, PDO
- Prosciutto di Carpegna, near Montefeltro, Italy, PDO
- Prosciutto di Norcia, Italy, PGI
- Prosciutto di Sauris, Italy, PGI
- Crudo di Cuneo, Italy, PDO
All of those have EU-protected designations for prosciutto in Italy. The Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union (EU) covers certain well-established meat products, including some local prosciutto, with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – DOP in Italian – and other, less stringent designations of geographical origin for traditional specialties.
But the names prosciutto and prosciutto crudo are generic, not protected designations. And there are various regions that have their own PDO, but whose specifications do not in general require ham from for instance free-range pigs.
Culatello di Zibello
The Culatello is similar to prosciutto. They make it from the filet or loin of the hind leg. And cured primarily with salt only and aged in a beef or hogs bladder as a casing. This is to prevent spoilage and contamination. Culatello di Zibello possesses PDO status. It is a eaten as starter.
Also, Culatello is one of the most prestigious “Salami” of the Italian tradition, it comes from the Parma province and in particular from the Zibello area.
Strolghino is a salame which cooks prepare from leftover cuts of culatello.
Slavic pršut in the eastern Adriatic comes from the Italian name prosciutto. In Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia, pršut is a common form of dry-cured ham. Pršut from Dalmatia, Herzegovina and Serbia is smoked. Unlike the pršut from Slovenia, Istria and Krk and the Italian product. A mountain village in Montenegro produces a delicacy known as njeguški pršut.
The Slovenian variant Kraški pršut and the Croatian variants Dalmatinski pršut, Krčki pršut and Istarski pršut have a Protected Geographical Indication within the EU.
Producers make prosciutto from either a pig’s or a wild boar’s hind leg or thigh. The base term prosciutto specifically refers to this product. They also use the hind leg of other animals. And in this case the producers include the name of the animal in the name of the product, for example “prosciutto cotto d’agnello” (“lamb prosciutto”).
The process of making prosciutto can take from nine months to two years, depending on the size of the ham.
Today, when manufacturing the ham,
- They first clean, salt, and leave it for about two months. During this time, they press the ham, gradually and carefully so as to avoid breaking the bone; they drain all blood left in the meat.
- Next, they wash it several times to remove the salt; and it is then hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the ham; they obtain the best results in a cold climate.
- Then they leave the ham until dry. The time this takes varies, depending on the local climate and size of the ham.
- When the ham is completely dry, it they hang it to air, either at room temperature or in a controlled environment, for up to 18 months.
The origins of prosciutto (/prəˈʃuːtoʊ, proʊˈ-/ prə-SHOO-toh, proh-,Italian: [proʃˈʃutto]) are in the name itself. The word prosciutto is derived from Latin pro (before) + exsuctus (past participle of exsugere “to suck out [the moisture]”). The Portuguese presunto has the same etymology. It is similar to the modern Italian verb prosciugare “to dry thoroughly” (from Latin pro + exsucare “to extract the juices from”).
In any case, the name etymology takes inspirations from the production method. During the seasoning time, salt drains the meat, preventing the growth of bacteria and molds and promoting conservation.
Already in Roman times, Parma was renowned for pig breeding and the production of seasoned pork meat. The Terramare civilization of the Bronze Age had already developed, in Emilia region, a structured agricultural culture and pig farms. In addition, the salt water springs present in that area, which is at quite a distance from the sea, created the basis for the production of this exquisite product.
Before the Romans it were the Celtic people in northern Italy who first began preserving pork with salt. The Romans who later began with air curing. There is evidence of a market taking place in San Daniele as far back as 1063. It is likely that, by this time, the curing and selling of prosciutto was commonplace in the region.
Use and Recipes
Sliced prosciutto crudo in Italian cuisine is often served as an antipasto. The Italians wrap it around grissini, or eat it with melon. Or they eat it as accompaniment to cooked spring vegetables, such as asparagus or peas.
You can include Prosciutto in a simple pasta sauce made with cream, or a Tuscan dish of tagliatelle and vegetables. Or use it in stuffings for other meats, such as veal, as a wrap around veal or steak, in a filled bread, or as a pizza topping.
Saltimbocca is an Italian veal dish, where escalopes of veal are topped with a sage leaf before being wrapped in prosciutto and then pan-fried. Prosciutto is often served in sandwiches and panini, sometimes in a variation on the Caprese salad, with basil, tomato and fresh mozzarella.