There is something extraordinary about true delicacies preserved by respecting centuries old tradition; food created without making any changes to the process. No doubt you’ve got your own in mind. Consider mine: a 3,000-year-old Italian process for one special kind of cured meat, prosciutto di Parma.
In 1000 BC, Cato, the historian, wrote about a common prosciutto-making procedure using either a pig or a wild boar’s rear haunches, the hind leg or thigh. It was then, and is still, an all-natural product, where additives such as sugar, smoke, water or nitrites are prohibited. In fact, prosciutto di Parma contains only four ingredients: Italian pigs, salt, air and time. (The smoking phase was eliminated when air-drying was perfected.)
The process was and is remarkably simple. The haunch was cleaned, trimmed and then salted, and left for about two weeks to draw off the moisture and preserve the meat from spoiling — a process controlled so only enough salt is absorbed to preserve it. And after about two weeks, the trimmed product has lost about one-quarter of its weight, and the flavour concentrated.
After trimming to remove some skin and fat — and give it the unique chicken drumstick shape — it was then washed several times to remove the remaining salt and then hung in a well-ventilated, humid and dark environment for about a month. The amount of time it takes depends on local climate conditions and the size of the storage facility. Once the prosciutto [Italian for ham] is completely dry, it hangs at room temperature in a controlled environment for another three months or so. The hams are then moved to a dark cellar-like environment and cured for between a year and three months, depending on the prosciutto’s size and original weight. It’s astonishing that the essence of the process is unchanged from Cato’s reference, 3,000 years earlier.
With three millennia of experience, today the virtually finished product is greased with a softening paste of minced lard and salt to add subtleness to the unique sweetness and salty taste. A minor modification indeed for a premium food sought worldwide.
In France, Jambon de Bayonne, in Spain Serrano, and even German hams, which were slightly saltier, are produced in an almost identical manner. Indeed (though I’ll get a blast from some of our readers for this) they seem to have accepted prosciutto di Parma as “the standard” — indeed the standard of excellence, combining sweetness with a slightly salty flavour. In recent years, the move has been toward homogenization to try and emulate the most famous Italian product from Parma. There’s a natural eco-friendly reason for producing it in Parma, as there’s an abundance of local salt for the curing and the pigs eat the whey left over from the local production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, also indigenous to the area. It’s culinary heaven.
Prosciutto di Parma, and its cousin San Daniele from the Friuli-Venezia province, are also offered with modest variations in taste and style by adding various spices such chilli flakes, black pepper or ground red pepper, which are often found in products from southern Italy. These spices play a key role in conserving the meat.
There’s a curious quirk in this happy culinary state of affairs. The official authenticating prosciutto di Parma stamp recognizable in more than 150 countries — a ducal crown with the word Parma, written in the centre — is forbidden in Canada. Why? Because a local mass producer of Italian products, known by the famous Canadian leaf on its logo, purchased the copyright to the name more than three decades ago. So, only in Canada it is called “prosciutto Originale,” where everywhere else in the world it is prosciutto di Parma.
Undoubtedly a delicacy, prosciutto is most often served as a first course, with slices so paper thin that you can almost read this magazine through it, and draped on a plate with melon or wedges of figs, or perhaps sliced pears. It is wonderful wrapped in grissini and equally delicious offset against kiwi or ripe mango. Slightly more substantial and offered as a course by itself is prosciutto slices wrapped around or draped on asparagus; it’s also fabulous matched with ripe mango.
The velvety, slightly salty flavour is sensational when shredded and mixed into thin pasta, like capellini or linguini, sometimes mixed with pesto and a bit of heavy cream.
And if it’s designer pizza you’re after, substitute prosciutto for any of the usual meats (boiled ham or any sausage slices). Or take but a minute for a superb sandwich: a Panini or a crusty roll with a slice of tomato, and mozzarella or wafer thin slices of prosciutto topped with shavings of parmigiano reggiano cheese, and drizzled with first pressing high quality olive oil.
There is a wonderful marriage, too, between veal and prosciutto. Use the prosciutto either as a stuffing, or simply wrapped around the meat and oven baked. Try it as a break with tradition in your cheese course, combining prosciutto with crumbled gorgonzola, or round out a meal with an easy and novel dessert, mixing it with glazed plums: a mouth-watering combination.
Marcella Hazan, the queen of Italian cooking in North America, calls prosciutto di Parma “an old friend of cooks.” It enhances her signature dish of red snapper and prosciutto, sautéed in white wine, “since it is air-cured and brings no distracting smokiness into the food in which it is cooked”.
Naturally, there are cousins to prosciutto that have been developed over the centuries. Culatello is a more refined variety of prosciutto made from heavier animals, and the ultimate cured meat is probably culatelo di Zibello, which has a special “denomination of origin” status. Served as a starter with fresh figs, it is nothing less than amazing.
Of course, there are few other derivatives too, sometimes quite astonishing. I have heard, more than once, people recalling their first experience with a dry but not firm, rather chunky-textured Calabrian sausage with a slightly sweet flavour with a pronounced smokiness. Called coppa or capicollo, it’s made from the pork shoulder or neck, and dry-cured, whole. It was virtually unknown until it was frequently mentioned in episodes of The Sopranos, though it also made an appearance in The Godfather.
And when I saw the word figatellu, I assumed it was a combination of smoked pork and a bit of dried figs. But it’s made from a combination of ham, pork liver and pigs’ blood. I’m not a great fan of liver, or pigs’ blood for that matter. And I am not alone. But it had a delightfully surprising taste: until I inquired how it was made!
To our credit, authentic-tasting prosciutto is available “home grown” in Canada now. There are at least three extraordinary producers, …
The outstanding Canadian success for the production of high-quality prosciutto, and now culatello, is Patrick Mathey’s Cochons Tout Ronds, located on the mini Magdalen Islands in the gaping Gulf of St Lawrence, 400 miles from Newfoundland or Nova Scotia.
The former restaurant owner in Montreal’s West Island moved to the Magdalens and became a charcuterie producer. But Mathey is not your run-of-the-mill creator merely following strict production methods. No, this Canadian was recently conferred the ultimate honour by his Italian peers, the gold prize Culatello Award. It is the first time this distinction has been awarded outside of Italy. Indeed, though there are only 14 producers of culatello in Italy, Patrick became, in effect, the 15th, and acknowledged as a super-producer.
His full range of charcuterie is sold at both of Montreal’s outdoor markets, the Atwater and Jean Talon, and Quebec City clients can buy his range at their famous market too. It is more than a great credit to Patrick, but proof positive, again, of the sophisticated tastes of an increasing number of Canadian gourmets.
The Niagara peninsula region also boasts a pure-bred producer of prosciutto — and the Mario Pingue family follows the strictest standards from Italian producers of San Daniele prosciutto. No preservatives, nitrates or other additives are used. In fact, there’s a direct, ongoing connection and exchange with the Corodazzi family, who are well-known producers in Italy. Their cured meats are sold through high quality delicatessens and restaurants.
And, on our west coast, the inimitable and charming John van der Lieck at Oyama Sausage produces prosciutto too, in the 3,000-year-old tradition, and sells their mouthwatering slices at the Granville Island market in Vancouver, respecting and following a five generation family legacy.
All things considered, we have choice, quality and availability for a true Italian delicacy.