Like most aspects of Italian gastronomy, there is more than meets the eye when dealing with Italian hams, known as Prosciutto. While there are two types of Prosciutto (cooked and raw), most non-Italians think of the uncooked, air cured variety known as Prosciutto crudo. This type of ham has been made in Italy since Roman times, the name coming from the Latin word meaning, "dried of liquid." Prosciutto di Parma, the variety most Americans have heard of has been praised for its flavor for over two thousand years. However every region in Italy that has pigs makes some variety of Prosciutto but only a few are available outside of Italy.
The story of Prosciutto is really the story of pigs, since it takes the best pigs eating the right foods to make a perfect ham. Each type has it's own flavors and aromas that make it unique and incredibly delicious. The overall process of making any Prosciutto crudo is basically the same and includes: Trimming the ham (made from the rear haunches) of skin and fat, salting the ham, air curing, greasing with salted lard and then a much longer curing period ranging from 1-2 years.
The word prosciutto comes from the Italian verb prosciugare which means to dry. The elimination of moisture is done to ensure this meat a long shelf life even at room temperature.
Even though the principles of making a Prosciutto are the same, each region has their own specific standards. These standards must be adhered to in order to be designated as a Protected Denomination of Origin or PDO Prosciutto. For instance the popular Prosciutto di Parma is made from large locally raised pigs which are fed a strict diet that includes whey from locally made Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Even though all Prosciutto hams share the process that includes salt and air curing, the length of time and the amount of salt used varies among the regional hams as well. The Prosciutto di San Daniele of the Friuli region uses local sea salt in sparse amounts and stacks the hams on top of each other. Both Parma and San Daniele hams are considered "sweet", however the Prosciutto Toscano of Tuscany is a "savory" ham with the salt accompanied by pepper, garlic, rosemary and juniper. Consortiums formed to maintain the integrity of Prosciutto flavor and quality protect these trade secrets and the strict rules regarding what makes a regional ham.
When buying Prosciutto it is good to keep in mind these regionally licensed hams as they will be the "real thing." Each regional consortium has their own specific brand or trademark that should be visible on the ham itself. If you are not buying a whole ham ask for a specific type of ham instead of just ordering Prosciutto. As stated earlier some like Parma and San Daniele are sweeter and much less salty than the Toscano hams. In recipes Parma and San Daniele can be interchanged however San Daniele is darker and has a more delicate flavor. Another sweet and famously fragrant regional ham is the Prosciutto Colli Berico-Euganei from the Veneto. If you stick to well known regional hams and are not afraid to shell out a few extra dollars there is no way you will regret you purchase. A little bit goes a long way in flavor for Prosciutto but it is something that just cannot be duplicated if you desire authentic Italian cuisine.
The 3 Best way to enjoy prosciutto are:
- Prosciutto e mozzarella
- Prosciutto e melone
- Prosciutto e fichi (fresh figs)
By Justin Demetri
Where to find prosciutto in the US. Many store carry prosciutto nowdays - You can find an economical advantage however at Costco: The Costco Daniele domestic ( made in the US ) prosciutto is good and the cost of one 10 pound leg is only $80 ( 10 pound of prosciutto is a lot ) -
They also have the sliced one - which is quite good for the price
Costco also has the imported 10 pound for $180
Prosciutto In Italy costs from Euro 12 a Kilogram to Euro 20 a kilogram ( February 2011 )
The price of prosciutto in Italy can change a lot from type to type. The very first difference is between 'prosciutto crudo' (raw) and 'prosciutto cotto' (cooked, more expensive). The most expensive commercial 'cotto' are Prosciutto di San Daniele and Prosciutto di Parma but then there are also quite cheap ones like 'nazionale' (mostly used for cooking and not to eat "alone"). Of course there are also prices' differences due to the maturing of this item, that's why you can find Parma's with different prices (hopefully nobody is cheating you, the cost is related to the maturing of prosciutto and not to its seller's mood). In addition I must also say that there are also "variations" of prosciutto like 'Prosciutto di Norcia' (from Norcia, in Umbria region) simply known as Norcino wich I think is more expensive than the others. In a lot of italian places you can find popular types of homemade prosciutto (close to my hometown is the village of Faeto, mainly popular for its very prestigious prosciutto IGP) but the amount of ham yearly produced in this cases is not enough to satisfy the national request so that it's quite difficult to find it outside its own local area. The last ones are probably the most expensive but surenly the most tasty prosciutto.