Prosciutto: A Ham By Any Other Name
There’s this thing about pig flesh that compels slavish devotion. It’s hard to think of another meat product that seems to generate a similar amount of cultish appreciation, whether it be whole pork products like chops and roasts, BBQ, bacon or ham.
Now, there are serious devotees of each group. But it might be tough to beat a group of porcine-lovers who congregated recently at Osteria Morini in New York’s SoHo neighborhood to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, the Italian ham.
Osteria Morini is celebrated Italian Chef Michael White’s homage to the authentic food of Emilia-Romagna and cuisine he describes as Non che sono piu, or, as he loosely translated, real, traditional food.
The Emilia-Romagna region is near and dear to Chef White’s heart because it’s where he earned his culinary stripes. It’s also prized as the birthplace of some of the most loved components of as Italian cuisine, including Parmigiano cheese, Mortadella sausage, Balsamic vinegar, and yes, Prosciutto.
How Old Is That Ham?
Prosciutto is one the earliest documented preserved foods, with mentions as far back as the 5th Century BC, where salted preserved pork legs were traded in the Etruscan Po River Valley. The Emilia-Romagna city of Parma, in particular, was already renowned for its extraordinary air-cured ham as far back as 100 BC.
Prosciutto di Parma is one of those delightful European agricultural products deemed so special it needs to be protected as a cultural icon.
To be called Prosciutto di Parma, a coveted protected designation of origin (PDO), a prosciutto ham can contain just two ingredients: The hind leg of a Large White, Landrance or Duroc breed of Parma pig, and salt.
The ham is salted and air-dried for a minimum of one year starting from the date of first salting. It is then cured for varying lengths of time to deepen the flavor intensity, for as long as 36 months.
The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma is the official body in charge of safeguarding, protecting and promoting the Designation of Origin for the 156 official "Prosciutto di Parma" producers. The Consorzio crown emblem and a firebrand on the ham are your indication you’ve gotten a true Prosciutto di Parma instead of a knockoff ham.
"We’re incredibly fortunate that Italian producers have made a commitment to delivering their goods to the U.S. market," Chef White says. "We now have access to the best elements of Italian cuisine, what you actually get when you live and work in Italy."
The United States is the world’s largest importer of whole Parma hams, bringing in 445,132 hams in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, according to the Consorzio. The French were second in total number, importing 404,569 hams. (Consider this little fun fact: The United States by population is more than four times the size of France, but Americans only ate about 10% more Prosciutto. That’s a lot of Italian ham with a French accent.)
Everything Tastes Better with Prosciutto
The event at Osteria Morini for the Consorzio featured a wide range of bites and small plates Chef White designed specifically to showcase prosciutto, in addition to specially crafted cocktails from his drinkmeister, Eban Freeman.
There were four stations of pure, unadulterated ham, in varying ages. The hams most likely to be found in U.S. grocery stores are usually aged 6-9 months, though specialty stores and shops in larger metropolitan areas could be aged 18, 24 or even 36 months. Sliced thin, with that trademark salty goodness and a light sheen, these hams tasted surprisingly similar, though a slight darkening in color as they age was a giveaway.
The biggest difference came when I met Francesco Lupo, a trainer for the Consorzio who was carving a rare 40-month-old ham. Sliced a little thicker, this ham was noticeably saltier and denser.
Lupo, who amended the official number of ingredients to four by adding weather and time as key factors in Prosciutto production, stressed that for an aged ham, there is only one way to eat it: As a stand-alone antipasto.
"Younger ham can also be eaten out of hand, but in Italy," Lupo says, "it’s more often used in cooking to add flavor."
The dishes Chef White created for the event reflected younger Prosciutto incorporated into Prosciutto meatballs, croquettes and pastas.
The classic combination of Prosciutto paired with melon made a surprisingly inspired appearance at the bar. The Melon e Prosciutto cocktail was melon-infused rum, Cocchi Americano (an Italian aperitif) and melon purée in a martini glass rimmed with sea salt and dried Prosciutto chips.
It was a great, modern take on a 5,000-year-old tradition.