Thursday, March 28, 2013

Prosciutto- Whole Hog Butchery Act Three

Prosciutto Crudo is the Italian word for the salted and dry cured hind leg of pork, or ham in English.  The word prosciutto basically translates to ham in English.  The Italians also make a baked or boiled ham, similar to the typical ham in any American deli, and it is called Prosciutto Cotto, or "cooked ham."  Prosciutto Crudo, or "raw ham," in Italy is what we Americans call Prosciutto.

The most famous prosciutto in Italy comes from around the city of Parma in the province
of Emilia Romagna in north central Italy.  Prosciutto di Parma is a government regulated regional product in Italy and is one of the most highly prized dry cured hams in the world.  Prosciutto is, however, made all throughout Italy and throughout Europe using basically the same process.  The famous jamon serrano of Spain, and the Bayonne ham of France are also produced using the same procedures.  The only main difference between these famous dry cured hams is the breed and diet of the pig used, as well as the geographic location where the hams are produced.

As I mentioned, Prosciutto is made from the hind leg of a pig.  Here is a half of a hog carcass, the ham is in the foreground.  As mentioned above the quality of pork used is one of the only defining characteristics separating the famous dry cured hams of the world.  In Spain the famous Iberian black pigs who feed on
chestnuts make the finest hams.  The famous Smithfield hams of Virginia were famous for the quality of their peanut fed hogs.  This hog was partially grass fed at Lover's Leap Farm inKinderhook, New York.  The size is important as well, with larger hams going into the production of Prosciutto.  This hog weighed well over 300 lbs and yielded two very large hams.

The trimming of the ham is important in giving the Prosciutto its characteristic guitar shape.  More of the hock on the shank end must be left intact to allow for secure tying of the Prosciutto as it ages.  More of the sirloin is left attached to the ham as well leaving more meat and giving
the prosciutto its rounded shape.  The pelvis bone is removed exposing the rounded end of the femur and the entire exposed surface of meat is trimmed.  The skin is left completely intact.  

The first step in creating a dry cured Prosciutto from a raw ham is salting.  Sea salt is the preferred salt for Prosciutto in Italy.  During salting the meat is completely penetrated with salt killing any bacteria or pathogens that would eventually cause the ham to spoil.  Salt is only applied to the surface and allowed to slowly penetrate the Prosciutto.  This process is usually done under refrigeration and requires a long time, up to 40 days.  For this reason the freshness of the raw ham prior to processing is very important.  These particular hams were under salt less than 24 hours after slaughter.

The amount of salt is determined as a fraction of the total trimmed weight of the raw ham before salting.  Between 3 and 6% by weight of salt is added over a 40 day period.  The Prosciutti are sometimes weighted down during the salting phase.  After this period the Prosciutti are brushed of excess surface salt, sometimes washed with water or white wine, and moved to a drying room.  Here the Prosciutti dry for about a year, sometimes more.  The great dry cured ham producing regions of the world also points to the quality of their air as and important factor in the quality of their hams.  During drying the Prosciutti will lose about 30% of its original weight.

After an initial drying stage, the exposed surface of the Prosciutto is rubbed with a mixture of pork fat and rice or semolina flour and sometimes a little black pepper.  This seals the exposed surface a protects against over drying.  As with all dry cured meats and cheese, certain molds are allowed to grow on the surface to enhance the flavor and further protect from over drying.  To check the Prosciutto during aging, a small bone needle is inserted into the center of the Prosciutto.  The aroma is absorbed by the bone needle and checked by a trained nose.  Basically it should smell like good prosciutto and if not the entire Prosciutto is discarded.

This ham here had been hanging for 18 months in this picture before taking down and slicing.  On the surface it may look rustic and a little unappetizing, however after brushing off and trimming of the surface the inside reveals the wonderfully heady aroma and delicately salty, nutty flavor of some of the best Prosciutto I have ever tasted.  It was almost two years in the making, a truly amazing process.

So go to your local Importer of fine food and get some Prosciutto.  Serve it as an appetizer with your favorite seasonal fruit like melon, figs, or strawberries; or make a sandwich on some crusty bread with a little oil and vinegar and some sharp cheese.

Buon Appetito


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