THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
Two days ago I was at the Downtown Farmers’ Market to buy some fresh produce when I glanced over some Tuscan
Melon. Now, you see..when I look at Tuscan Melon, or the more common Cantaloupe, only one pairing pops in my mind: “Prosciutto e Melone”.
Like most aspects of Italian gastronomy, there is more than meets the eye when dealing with Italian hams, known as Prosciutto.The history of cured meats in Italy goes back to Roman times. The Romans were quite familiar with the preservation of butchered meats. They gave the name perexsuctus to aged pig’s thighs that were dried in the sun. In ancient Rome, the shops sold panis and perna , bread and prosciutto!
While there are more than 30 types of Prosciutto most Americans have heard of “Prosciutto di Parma”, which 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.
Needless to say that my favorite type of Prosciutto is “Prosciutto Toscano”.
Tuscan prosciutto must, of course, come from Tuscany. But Tuscany is not a large pork producing region, and while some pigs destined to become prosciutto have their origins in Tuscany, many more are brought in from the surrounding regions: Lombardy, Emilia Romano, Marche, Umbria and Lazio. What then makes the prosciutto Tuscan? While these pigs may not all have their origins in Tuscany, they must be brought here in order to become this special type of prosciutto: the specific way in which the meat is slaughtered and the recipes used for curing it are among the factors that make the Tuscan prosciutto unique.
Pigs destined to become Prosciutto di Toscano must weigh at least 145 kilos and be no less than nine months old. Before curing, each fresh prosciutto must weigh in at a minimum of eleven kilos. The Tuscan DOP rules of prosciutto production demand that each prosciutto be aged for more than one year; 14 or 15 months is usually considered the perfect amount of time for curing.
Prosciutto di Parma is also known as prosciutto dolce (sweet) . Our prosciutto, in contrast, is saporito , tasty and salty. There are food historians who say that the Prosciutto di Toscano is saltier than that made in other regions in order to compensate for the lack of salt in our breads. Centuries ago, when the Papal State dominated Tuscany, these rulers imposed an extremely high tax on salt. As a form of protest, Tuscan bakers began to make their bread without salt.
Gradually, the taste for bread made entirely without salt became widespread, and to this day, Tuscan bread is saltless.
Many believe that Tuscan prosciutto became saltier in order to compensate for the lack of salt in our bread. Hence, the Prosciutto di Parma is designated dolce, and the prosciutto of Tuscany is saporito!
Our prosciutto also has a few more distinguishing characteristics. The exposed end of the cut pig’s thigh in the DOP
prosciutto of Tuscany is always covered by a dense layer of black pepper. One would expect that this is done to influence the flavor, but it is not. The pepper is used only as protection, a sort of natural casing for the exposed or cut end of the pig’s thigh, and it has nothing to do with the flavor of the cured meat.
What does influence the flavor is the combination of sea salt, which is always applied dry, and pepper, juniper berries, rosemary, garlic, and sometimes fennel, wine or vinegar that each prosciutto maker uses to cure his meat. There are only 21 members of the Tuscan prosciutto consortium, and their members, on farms spread throughout our region, produce only 132,000 prosciutti a year. (In contrast, Parma and San Daniele turn out 11 million prosciutti per year!)
Each farmer or butcher within the Tuscan consortium uses his own recipe or combination of the above ingredients, making the prosciutto a bit different from Tuscan town to town. For instance, a prosciutto produced near Siena might have a more intense flavor and a drier texture than one made near Pisa, where the prosciutti are known to have a less salty and more refined taste. This is, after all, the land of village rivalries and strong culinary traditions.
Records on the production of prosciutto in Tuscany go back for centuries. In 1559, producers were required to keep records on the salting of pork meat. A report from 1776 tells us that the slaughtering rituals for pigs had been in place since the 13th Century, and that pigs were to be killed only between the festivals of Ognissanti and Carnivale. This tradition endured for centuries, and up until the early 1970s, the killing of the rural family pig took place in the weeks before Christmas; it was an occasion for much celebration. Even though the old agricultural ways have disappeared from most homes, the tradition of Tuscan prosciutto lives on.