VOLUME 21 ... PROSCIUTTO

WHAT A HAM WAS MEANT TO BE

by Mario Fiorucci

 

 

I was at home having lunch a couple of weeks ago on a Monday (the only day the store is closed), completely lost in thought as to what topic I should write about in this month’s live to eat. Although I have a long list of potential interesting subjects, at the time none of them was particularly inspiring. So, after realizing I was staring at the same part of the wall for about five minutes I snapped back into consciousness and looked down at the plate of food I was enjoying. The search for this month’s topic was over.

If I had to pick one meal that I enjoy the most, above all other meals regardless of whether it is at home or in a restaurant, my number one pick, ironically, is what I was eating at that moment in time. That meal is the combination of the following ingredients:

  • Hardy and dense crusty bread – in this particular case I had a day-old loaf of Thuet’s St. Tropez – a wonderful sourdough bread with niçoise olives and roasted garlic;

  • Fresh Mozzarella di Buffala (it had just arrived fresh at The Healthy Butcher that day);

  • Fresh tomatoes picked a few seconds earlier from my garden – in this case, I was lucky enough to find perfectly ripe Mountain Princess tomatoes, an heirloom variety Tara (my wife) planted for the first time this year; and

  • The ingredient that brought everything together - good quality, thinly-sliced Prosciutto - in this case, I had some of Mario Pingue’s locally cured Prosciutto from Niagara Food Specialties.

I enjoy ingredients in their naked form, choosing to take a bite of the mozzarella, then a bite of bread, followed by tomatoes and prosciutto - not combined into some sort of Caprese style sandwich. In any case, I figured it was time to express my gratitude to what I consider the king of charcuterie - prosciutto.

continued below

 

 

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CANADIAN BBQ CHAMPIONSHIP RESULTS FOR THE 2007 SEASON

 

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VOLUME 21 ... PROSCIUTTO

WHAT A HAM WAS MEANT TO BE

 

Last year at this time we discussed the process of canning tomatoes to enjoy the flavour of fresh & local summer tomatoes year round. We received numerous excited emails throughout the winter and spring from readers who were inspired to can tomatoes for their first time and how they enjoyed excellent quality tomato sauces made from their own tomatoes throughout the year. Hopefully, this newsletter will serve to inspire you to take on the more complicated and patient task of curing prosciutto. All you need is a good quality ham, good quality sea salt, a cantina (i.e. cellar), and twelve to twenty-four long months; our Head Butcher Ryan Donovan will get more into the process later.

Nonno Longo with his homemade prosciutti, wine, and tomatoes.
An Italian man's pride: We asked Nonno Longo (Tara’s grandfather) to pose for a picture in his cantina next to his homemade prosciutti; not only did he oblige, but he quickly grabbed a bottle of his homemade wine to be in the picture.  Note also the homemade canned tomatoes in the background.

WHAT IS PROSCIUTTO AND HOW IS IT USED?

prosciutto e melone

Photo taken from www.lifeinitaly.com

Literally, the word “prosciutto” derives from the Latin perexsuctum which means "dried of liquid"; broadly speaking, “prosciutto” refers to a dry-cured ham. That is, a whole back leg of a mature pig packed in salt for weeks, then rinsed and hung to dry for many months or even years. Confusingly, “prosciutto” is the Italian word for ham (the leg of a pig); so, in Italy the distinction is made between “prosciutto crudo”, meaning raw ham, being the cured ham which English speakers refer to as simply “prosciutto”, and “prosciutto cotto” being a cooked ham. To add another level of confusion, North Americans generally grow up referring to “ham” as the common smoked pork leg used for lunchmeat, instead of “ham” referring to a raw leg of pig. Let’s attempt to end the confusion right now - when we speak of “prosciutto” we are talking about a dry-cured leg of pig.

Prosciutto is generally sliced paper-thin and often served in Italian cuisine as an antipasto, wrapped around grissini or, especially in summer, cantaloupe or honeydew. It may be included in a simple pasta sauce made with cream, or a Tuscan dish of tagliatelle and vegetables. It is served in sandwiches, often in a variation of the Caprese salad, with basil, tomato, and fresh mozzarella. Prosciutto may further be used as a stuffing for other meats, in a filled bread or as a pizza topping. Personally, a good quality prosciutto is best served one way and way only – on its own.

PROSCIUTTI AROUND THE WORLD

Using salt to dry-cure hams has been a process used since ancient Egyptian times. Before refrigeration, salting was the only way to keep the flesh of animals for any length of time without spoiling. Today, the majority of dry-cured hams in North America come from one of the following four sources, which we will discuss in more detail below: (1) Parma, Italy, the source of Prosciutto di Parma; (2) the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, the source of Prosciutto di San Daniele; (3) Serrano Ham from Spain; and (4) local producers.

The story of Prosciutto is really the story of pigs - it takes the best pigs eating the right foods to make a perfect ham. The overall process of making any prosciutto is basically the same anywhere in the world and includes trimming the ham, using salt to cure the ham, than air drying the ham for a period ranging from 1-2 years. Despite the similarity in the process, prosciuttos from around the world will have different flavours, aromas, and textures that make them unique – all a result of the breed of pig, what the pig ate and how it was treated, even the air the pig breathed – all factors combine to create the flavour profile.

Unfortunately for us North Americans, we rarely get a chance to experience the best dry-cured hams Europe has to offer, since the smaller, more unique and often highest-quality producers are sold-out locally. If you’re planning a trip to Europe (especially Italy, Spain or France), be sure to write down the names of some hams to seek out in restaurants or grocery stores to taste prosciutti that are completely different than those we are used to here at home. You may have to shell out a few extra dollars for ham from some of the niche producers, but a little goes a long way in flavour and experiencing that flavour is experiencing the authentic cuisine of the country you are in.

Rather than seeking out certain brands which requires more detailed research, one easy way to recognize different hams is to seek out EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) prosciutti.  Under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, certain well-established meat products are covered by PDOs or other designations of geographical origin for traditional specialties (not unlike designated regions for wine). The European Commission Agriculture and Rural Development site lists the following PDOs for dry-cured ham, in alphabetical order by country:

BELGIUM:
Jambon d'Ardenne

BULGARIA:
Elenski but, made in the town of Elena in Bulgaria

FRANCE:
Bayonne ham, from the French Basque country

GERMANY:
Ammerländer Schinken/Ammerländer Knochenschinken

ITALY:
Prosciutto di Parma, Italy
Prosciutto di San Daniele, Italy
Prosciutto di Modena, Italy (PDO)
Prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo, Italy (PDO)
Prosciutto di Carpegna, near Montefeltro, Italy (PDO)
Prosciutto di Norcia, Italy (PGI)
Prosciutto Toscano, Italy (PDO)
Prosciutto crudo di San Daniele (UD)

PORTUGAL:
Presunto in Portugal (similar to Jamón serrano)

SPAIN:
Jamón ibérico
Jamón serrano

OTHER NOTABLE DRY-CURED HAMS INCLUDE:
Pršut, from the Balkans :
Dalmatinski Pršut, from Dalmatia in Croatia
Njeguška pršuta, from Njeguši, Montenegro
Kraški pršut, from Karst, Slovenia

Keep in mind, however, that several countries maintain their own denominations (or DOCs) that may include regional hams not included in the EU set.


PROSCIUTTO DI PARMA

 

The popular Prosciutto di Parma (perhaps the world’s most widely known ham) is made from specially bred Large White, Landrance and Duroc locally raised pigs which are fed a strict diet of grain, cereal and whey from locally made Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The whey results in a slightly nutty flavour in the prosciutto. Pigs used must be reared in one of 11 regions in central-north Italy and must weigh at least 140kg at the time of slaughter and should be a minimum of 9 months old.

Prosciutto di Parma symbol 

Just four ingredients are permitted in the production of Prosciutto di Parma: Italian pigs, salt, air and time. The salting of the hams is performed by a maestro salatore, who uses enough salt to cure the meat, whilst ensuring that the ham does not lose its sweetness, which is the hallmark of properly made Prosciutto di Parma. The hams are then left in 80% humidity for about a week. Any residual salt is then removed and the hams are given a second salting and left for 15-18 days, depending on weight. The hams are then hung and refrigerated in 65% humidity for 70 days. Next they are washed and brushed to remove any excess salt, and left in drying rooms. The hams are now ready for the initial curing. This takes place in temperature and humidity controlled rooms that are equipped with windows to let in natural air from outside. Many believe that this stage is the key to the development of Parma’s inimitable flavour. After about three months the exposed areas of the ham, those areas that are not protected by skin, have dried out and can be covered with a protective film of lard and salt. The ham is now ready for the second cure. They are taken to dark cellars and hung on racks for a period of at least one year, although certain hams may be cured for up to 30 months. At the end of this laborious curing process the ham is ready for tasting. Using a hollowed out horse bone the inspector pierces the ham five times, at different points. The aroma of the meat inside indicates that correct curing has taken place and that the ham is of sufficient quality to be branded as Prosciutto di Parma. Those hams that pass all quality tests are branded with the trademark of the Prosciutto di Parma consortium, the five-pointed ducal crown. Only the consortium may brand hams with this symbol, a guarantee of the quality and authenticity of Prosciutto di Parma.

For more information, visit: www.prosciuttodiparma.com

PROSCIUTTO DI SAN DANIELE

The town of San Daniele, a small town of 8,000 people in the heart of Friuli in northern Italy produces what is widely acknowledged as the best prosciutto in all of Italy. Of course, as with all things Italian, this statement results in heated discussion over a glass (or several glasses) of wine. The Prosciutto di San Daniele is cured using local sea salt in sparse amounts and also, like Prosciutto di Parma, results in a prosciutto considered sweet. Between the two, San Daniele tends to be darker in colour and sweeter in flavour than Parma ham. Prosciutto di San Daniele is characterized by its flat guitar shape because the hams are stacked on top of each other during curing.

Mamma Fiorucci in San Daniele, Italy Mamma Fiorucci visiting a prosciutto producer in

San Daniele, Italy – August, 2007 

San Daniele prosciutto must be made with the fresh thighs of Italian-bred heavy pigs in excellent health. Located in the foothills of the Italian Alps, San Daniele has the ideal microclimate for air-curing meat. Cool winds off the mountains mingle with warm breezes from the Adriatic to create constant ventilation and low humidity, a kind of “natural air conditioning,” that enhances the flavor of the meat.

The San Daniele consortium oversees the production of over 3,000,000 prosciutto hams per year, about 14% of the total production of Italy. There are 28 producers who carry the San Daniele name.  

For more information, visit: http://www.prosciuttosandaniele.it/

SPANISH HAM

Spain is the world's leading producer and consumer of ham. About 38.5 million hams and shoulders are processed each year, and every Spaniard eats nearly 5 kg of ham a year - twice as much as in Italy. Spanish hams come in two varieties: Serrano and Iberico. The hams known as Jamones Serranos come from white breeds of pig such as Duroc and Landrace; these pigs are much leaner and the fat is mainly on the outside and slightly yellowish in colour. Serrano ham is not limited to particular areas of Spain, although there are minimum quality requirements for hams to bear this designation. Further, there are three official Serrano ham grades: Plata (Silver) for hams cured 8-11 months; Oro (Gold) for hams cured 11-14 months; and Gran Serrano for hams cured for more than 14 months.

Grocery Store Deli in Spain 

A Photo I took in the deli section of a typical Spanish grocery store.  The hams save money otherwise spent on wallpaper.

The hams known as Jamón Iberico come from Iberico breeds of pig such as Entrepelado, Retinto, and Manchado de Jabugo; the muscles in these pigs are well marbled throughout. The marbling fat helps slow down the curing process, resulting in more complex, powerful aromas. The Iberico ham designation can be used only in regions found in the west and southwest of Spain. Iberico hams are also popularly known as Jamón Pata Negra (black hoof ham) because the skin and hoof of an Iberian hog are usually black. But this is not an official designation as there are varieties of Iberian pigs that are not black and there are also non-Iberian pigs with black or very dark hides.

The quality of Jamón Iberico is dependent on the pig’s feed. Jamón Iberico de Bellota (also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera) are free-range, acorn-fed Iberian pigs and the highest quality. A step down is Jamón Iberico de Recebo which are fed acorn, pasture and commercial feed. So, just because a ham has a Denominación de Origen mark it doesn’t mean that it’s a top quality ham comparable to Jamón Iberico de Bellota or Recebo.

OTHER NOTABLE WORLD HAMS

The delicate tasting French Jambon de Bayonne comes from the capital of the French Basque country. It is salted using local sea salt and then dried in that region for at least seven months so that it develops its characteristic aroma and becomes tender.  Definitely worth a try!

Jambon d’Ardennes from Belgium are also worth seeking out. These hams are manually dry-salted with sea salt, juniper berries, thyme, and coriander, smoked over beech and oak till dark brown, and then long-aged to acquire full-bodied flavour and soft texture. Every Ardennes ham has a yellow-numbered leaden seal as a guarantee of quality and origin.

If you find yourself in Tuscany, a great variance to the Proscuitti di Parma and San Daniele is Prosciutto Toscano; unlike the sweet prosciutti that make up the majority of prosciutto production, Toscano is a "savory" ham with the salt accompanied by pepper, garlic, rosemary and juniper.

LOCALLY-MADE PROSCIUTTI

All this discussion of world prosciutto, and low and behold The Healthy Butcher only carries two varieties – neither of which are discussed above. The first variety is our homemade prosciutto made from our locally grown Certified Organic pigs, cured and dried in-house. The second is Pingue Prosciutto from Niagara Food Specialties in Niagara-On-The-Lake who uses only Naturally Raised or Certified Organic hams from Quebec and Ontario.

The decision to stick to these two local sources was not an easy one considering our love of dry-cured hams. Ultimately, the decision was based on two reasons. First, we have yet to find good quality organic dry-cured hams that are imported or “importable” into Canada due to (ridiculously) strict import requirements. Second, and the more convincing reason, is the food mileage of imported prosciutto. Even if a food item is organic, if that item was shipped half-way across the world the resulting fossil fuel costs for delivery alone almost negate the benefit of having grown the item organically in the first place. Further, the sustainability of the local, organic meat industry is largely dependent on the success of fringe industries that insure 100% utilization of the animal – the curing of non-prime cuts of meat is a perfect example of such an industry. There’s a damn good reason why The Healthy Butcher takes pride in its over fifty different Charcuterie items made in-house! If those Charcuterie items are not successful, we (as in you) would not have the opportunity to enjoy our local, organic pork Tenderloin, or even beef New York Striploin, for that matter. In any case, the discussion of food mileage is a lengthy one and best left for another newsletter. If we ever come across a remarkable good quality organic imported prosciutto, we may have to revisit the pros and cons. For now, let’s talk about Pingue’s prosciutto.

Very few local producers get us as excited as Niagara Food Specialties. Mario and Fernando Pingue took over their father’s small business in 2002. Their dad, their dad’s dad, and their dad’s dad dad have been making prosciutto since 1889. In 2002 they decided to take it under their wings and turn it into a full-time business. Thankfully, the knowledge of three prior generations has not been lost judging by the quality of their prosciutto today, which we would easily prefer over 95% of the imported generic grade Italian and Spanish hams. “What you start off with will determine what you end up with,” says Mario Pingue, and after a short pause and giggle sums it up with “garbage-in, garbage-out.” So, the Pingues stick to using only hams from Naturally Raised and Certified Organic pigs from local sources. The results of their selective process are obvious. To this day, the Pingue prosciutti are the only prosciutti sold at The Healthy Butcher that are not house cured.
 

A RECIPE FOR CURING A PROSCIUTTO

I have vivid memories of watching my father salt pork hams in January, when our cantina was cool enough to ensure the safe curing and initial drying of hams in a non-refrigerated environment. For the average household, the cellar (known as the cantina in my family) is too warm and humid in the spring, summer, and fall, but January and February provide perfect conditions. In Bill Buford’s book Heat: An Amateur's Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker, And Apprentice To A Dante, Buford describes 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.” For the recipe, I turn it over to Ryan who makes our prosciutti in-house.

PROSCIUTTO DI TIMMINS: A RECIPE NONETHELESS

By Ryan Donovan 

All good food must wear its origin proudly and tout the lineage of its craftsman. My mother was born in a small Belgian farming village called Herzela, between Ghent and Brussels. My father was born in Timmins. In butchery, this makes me about as qualified to make prosciutto as Wayne Gretzky is to be a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints.

But, even the Great One would understand my lust for the salty plump and purple insides of dry cured ham: it takes a patient reverence, a bookish insight, and the co-operation of the wind, literally. When autumn rolls around in Toronto, the weather is sometimes hotter than it has been all summer and the tacky putrid air sweeping in off Lake Ontario smells little of figs and black walnuts. In fact, it doesn’t even sweep: it lumbers.

This is not to say that we must import our cured hams. Nor is it to say that we in Ontario are being robbed of the opportunity to proudly champion the flavour profile of our terroir. We can cure ham. In fact, with all the pigs in Ontario, we bloody well have to. At The Healthy Butcher, we approach charcuterie with an old fashioned logic: if we don’t, what will we do with all this stuff? The average modern North American butcher shop that purchases boxed meat from a wholesaler does not have this problem. But for us, using the whole animal is a point of ethics. When supporting this ethic, a penchant for charcuterie is invaluable.

And in the world of charcuterie, this is the second best time of year. Autumn signals many things: the early spring pigs are reaching the right weight for slaughter, the temperatures are dropping, the moisture levels are rising. While the earliest time to start curing prosciutti in a home cellar is January, autumn demands a trip to the local farm with the intention of sussing out the sow.  Making prosciutto is a long process, and as with all good food, it begins with your buying decisions.

The best time of year, of course, is when you taste the hams: when you sit down to eat them with crusty bread, heirloom tomatoes and wet young cheese. Here is my recipe for making prosciutto. It was not handed down to me through my father’s lineage and I have no memories of eating it as a child. But I am proud that it works well in Ontario: it is considerate of our climate, of our options for consumption, and of the need to use the whole animal.

This recipe is very simple, and once you master it, there is lots of room to add your own flare. As you get started, you can make your life easier by having me do Step 2 for you. You can find me at the shop, ogling the cheese case.

The Healthy Butcher's Organic Prosciutto in 10 Steps,

One of Which is Particularly Easy

  1. Make a 2:1::Salt:Sugar cure.  The general rule to follow for making prosciutto is 1 Lbs of cure for each 10 Lbs of raw Ham with 1 week of salt curing time for each 5 Lbs of raw ham. So, for a 20 Lbs raw ham, apply 2 Lbs of cure and allow for 4 weeks of salt curing time.

  2. Remove the aitche bone from the ham. Leave the rind on. Remove the trotter but leave the hock. Shape the femur end of the ham into an appealing semi circle. 

  3. Put the ham in a non reactive container (ceramic, plastic or wood - but not metal) and rub with the cure (above). Be very thorough and liberal with the rub, particularly around the exposed hock and the exposed femur bone. It is in these areas that bacteria is most likely to develop. 

  4. Place a lid on the container and put the ham in a cool dark place, between 1C to 4C. 

  5. Monitor the hams over the next few weeks. As the cure dissolves into the meat and the ham looses moisture, drain off the moisture and reapply additional dry cure. 

  6. After 4 weeks remove the hams from the non reactive container. Rinse the hams with a mixture of balsamic vinegar and red wine that has been reduced by half over a hot flame (and let cool). 

  7. Dry the hams with a clean dry fabric cloth. 

  8. Tie a strong loop several times around the hock, finishing with a slip knot. The end of the tie should have a loop, so as to suspend the prosciutto from the ceiling. 

  9. Find a dark cool place to hang the prosciutto. The temperature and humidity should be constant and the more air circulation the better. 

  10. Wait a year. 

 

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