By Ben Maloney.
If you have ever been to an Italian deli anywhere in the United States one thing is certain, they’ll have prosciutto. It’s as essential to many Italians as wine, though for many in the United States it still remains a bit of a mystery. Prosciutto to many Americans may just sound essentially like gourmet Italian ham, though to truly understand prosciutto it’s important to go to the source. Some of the best Italian prosciutto is from the north of Italy in regions like Friuli Venezia Giulia and Emilia Romagna. Like renowned food expert Fresh Direct senior buyer and Sofi awards judge Ken Blanchette echoes, “Prosciutto is a foundation in Italian cuisine. Every region takes pride in their homegrown ham. Some of the best comes from San Daniele del Friuli.”
Though the quality of prosciutto across Italy is not uniform. From sourcing to the process of creating the delicacy each step is its own art form. One of the most practiced and celebrated artists in the making this famed meat is Prosciutto di San Daniele in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. San Daniele is in the province of Udine, in the extreme northeastern part of Italy.
In Italy, food is never separate from tradition. In the town of San Daniele del Friuli, the art of prosciutto making has been passed down for centuries. They have some simple rules they follow to keep this centuries-old tradition alive. For instance, they never freeze their meat and they only work with fresh hams, which are processed using only sea salt (no additives or preservatives). The maturing process for the prosciutto in San Daniele is a minimum of 13 months.
You may be wondering, but what about the pigs? This is an important question because it’s where the prosciutto comes from. For the Prosciutto di San Daniele, they only use meat from pigs born and bred in ten specific regions of central and northern Italy including Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzo, Marche, and Umbria. The pig farms they source from care deeply about the wellbeing of their animals and the pigs are fed a special diet based on quality cereals and whey.
The creation of Prosciutto di San Daniele is an intricate nine step process. The meat is first elected and trimmed, salted, pressed, rested, washed and dried, matured, smeared with lard, pierced, and finally branded.
The first step is for the thighs to be thoroughly examined upon arriving at the facility. Then they are trimmed to aid the loss of excess moisture and to fill their trademark shape. Next is the natural process of salting the meat. The experts in San Daniele have an interesting traditional formula they follow which is the number of days equal to the number of kilograms of each ham.
After salting, the hams are then pressed to allow the salt to penetrate into the meat so that it can become firmer. The salted hams are placed to rest in special rooms until the fourth month after the start of the curing process.
The longest step in the process is the maturing. It takes a minimum of 13 months for a ham to become mature. After the process of waiting is complete the part of the ham not covered by the rind is smeared with “sugna”. Sugna is a paste consisting of a mixture of lard and rice or wheat flour. The smearing is done in order to protect and soften that part of the ham by preventing the underlying meat from drying out.
During the earlier, maturing process inspections are regularly conducted on the meat. In fact, sometimes the meat is even beaten or pierced to properly assess the progress and quality of the process. After the piercing stage is complete the “final exam” happens where the INEQ Certification Body (a fancy way to say prosciutto inspectors) performs the final inspection of the ham. If the ham passes it’s then branded with the mark of the Consortium which tells the world “yes, this is officially Prosciutto 12di San Daniele”. A similar process is done in different food regions in Italy to ensure the quality of a branded product. After all, when you go and buy Prosciutto di San Daniele you have high expectations (and for good reason!)
Wait… I forgot to include the most important step of the process which is step 10… eating!
Ben Maloney is a New York based food and travel writer. He loves exploring new places and culture through cuisine, especially if that cuisine is Italian.