Prosciutto crudo

 

It took twenty-six centuries, but the English language has recently accepted that ham and prosciutto really aren’t the same thing. Now that the Italian word has finally entered the international cooking jargon it is probably time for learning what prosciutto really is. First of all: Italy produces two main varieties of prosciutto. Prosciutto cotto is a kind of cooked cured meat similar to classic ham – pink, bland, and excellent as hospital food. Prosciutto crudo, on the other hand, is an entirely different thing. It is a pig’s hind leg, dry-cured and barely treated during its long seasoning until it becomes a real delicacy. Italians eat it in very thin slices with breadsticks or fruit (especially with melon), but also use it in various recipes ranging from basic panini to treats like tortellini, a kind of handmade pasta stuffed with prosciutto.

The first mention of prosciutto crudo (or just ‘crudo’, as it is often called) dates back to the sixth century before Christ: its preparation has barely changed since then. It all starts with cleaning the leg, salting it and leaving it aside for about two months pressed under weighted wood. The pressing drains the meat of its blood; the salt takes all its liquids and humidity out removing all risks of rotting. In fact, the very word ‘prosciutto’ comes from late Latin for ‘dried out’. After this first period, the prosciutto is washed several times and massaged with sugnatura, a mixture of rice flour, salt, pepper, pork fat and sometimes herbs used to impart more flavor and to prevent the outer skin from cracking. The prosciutto is finally hung out to season in a dark and well-ventilated environment for up to one year and a half.

The secret behind the unmistakable taste of Italian prosciutto lies there, in the peculiar microclimates of the country. Each region (even each province, actually) produces its own prosciutto crudo, but some of them unquestionably rise above the average. Although there is over a dozen of DOC (certified origin) types of Italian prosciutto crudo, only three are considered the absolute best.
They are Prosciutto di Parma, from the eponymous province; San Daniele, produced in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia; and the lesser known Prosciutto di Sauris, also from that region but unique since it is the only one to be lightly smoked. All of them use minimal curing: just sea salt and possibly a little bit of rice flour.

Italy also produces other types of prosciutto crudo using boar, deer or goose meat. Those are however thought as unusual local specialities, excellent yet unfit for the red-hot branding that denotes real top quality prosciutti (plural of ‘prosciutto’).