In January 2018 I wrote about ‘prosciutto’. Recently Toni Brancatisano of L’Italo Americano magazine focused on San Daniele DOP prosciutto one of the best known prosciuotto’s around the world.
San Daniele del Friuli is a beautiful, quaint small town in Italy’s northern region Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the province of Udine. It is situated on the top of a hill, half-way between the mountains and the Adriatic Sea, near the Tagliamento River, which is the largest river of the Friuli region. It is a town rich in medieval history and artistic treasures such as the frescoes inside the tiny church of Sant’ Antonio Abate, otherwise called the “Sistine Chapel of Friuli,” and the Guarneriana Library (one of the oldest in Italy). Founded in 1466, this library contains more than 12,000 antique books including a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Inferno.
But, there is another treasure that has made this town famous all over the world: the delicious Prosciutto di San Daniele D.O.P.
Prosciutto is the Italian word for ham. Prosciutto Crudo is an Italian dry-cured ham that is usually served raw and thinly sliced. The word crudo means raw, as opposed to prosciutto cotto, which is cooked. It is characterized by a pinkish-red color and is slightly veined with thin streaks of fat. The fat or lard around it, which is pure white, is delicate and complements the meat, so when eating Prosciutto Crudo, both the meat and the fat should be enjoyed together. Prosciutto Crudo is eaten either wrapped around grissini (bread sticks), and in Summer is often paired with cantaloupe melon or fresh figs. Most commonly though throughout the year, Prosciutto Crudo is simply enjoyed as a sandwich filler, often paired with mozzarella inside two slices of rustic Italian bread. Prosciutto Crudo is perfect any time of day enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and is also commonly enjoyed during an Italian Aperitivo.
The geographical location of San Daniele del Friuli and the micro-climate there is fundamentally important for the production and aging of Prosciutto di San Daniele. The cold winds blow down from the Alps and meet the breeze from the Adriatic Sea, while the Tagliamento River in the middle ensures the air has a certain amount of humidity and is never too dry. So the only ingredients that are required to make Prosciutto Crudo are the hind legs of Italian pigs, sea salt and the magical air of San Daniele del Friuli.
No chemicals, additives or preservatives are used throughout the production of Prosciutto di San Daniele, which can only be made using the hind legs of pigs that are born, bred and also slaughtered in Italy. If the pigs aren’t of an excellent quality, one can’t expect to produce an excellent Prosciutto di San Daniele. The pigs can only come from ten regions in Italy: Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzo, Marche, and Umbria. The diet of the pigs is under strict control and all the phases required to achieve a prosciutto leg worthy of the SAN DANIELE DOP brand at the end of 13 months are controlled by rigid regulations.
There are only 31 producers that are recognized by the Consortium San Daniele (il Consorzio del Prosciutto di San Daniele). The Consortium is an association that functions much like a union, their goal is to not only protect and promote the brand but also to educate people about this unique and precious product.
Some of the prosciutto producers are 4th generation families who have continued the tradition of their ancestors. It definitely isn’t a job you could do if you didn’t have the dedication and passion required to pour your heart and soul into the care that goes into each leg of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Some bigger companies have machinery to facilitate the production process, but smaller businesses still use traditional methods. It is an artisanal job involving manual labor. Whether these companies use modern day machinery or traditional methods, the process of production must be the same and uniform for all the companies that belong to the Consorzio.
The production begins with the arrival of the pork hind legs, the thigh with the pork trotter attached (an identifying factor of Prosciutto di San Daniele). The thighs are inspected and only those passing the initial test will begin their journey to becoming Prosciutto di San Daniele. They are first stored for 24 hours at a temperature between -33°F and 37°F they are then trimmed with special cuts to facilitate the loss of moisture.
After a second 24 hours, the thighs are covered with sea salt and placed at a temperature between 32°F and 39°F. Each ham rests in this condition for a number of days: the time of this resting depends on how much each thigh weighs. After salting, Prosciutti di San Daniele are pressed along the muscle mass in order to make the salt penetrate deeply. This phase is exclusive to San Daniele and also gives the hams their characteristic “guitar” shape.
The salted thighs are left to rest in rooms where humidity varies between 70% and 80% and a temperature between 39°F and 49°F. This phase lasts up to the fourth month from the start of processing and allows the salt to penetrate evenly inside the ham. After the rest, the thighs are washed with warm water. This phase is very important because it promotes the toning of the meat and, with the change of temperature, the aging process begins. This must last at least thirteen months from the beginning of the initial process. During this whole period it is essential to maintain an optimal temperature, humidity and ventilation.
The next phase is called the sugnatura in Italian, sugna means suet. A paste is made consisting of pork fat and rice or wheat flour, and it is applied by hand and massaged onto the part not covered by the pork rind. This protects and, at the same time, softens that part of the meat, preventing the underlying meat from drying. Interestingly this has traditionally been a job done by women (this process has the side benefit of leaving lovely soft hands).
Periodic checks are done on every single Prosciutto di San Daniele during the aging process. One such check occurs at the end of curing: it is a fundamental test carried out using the olfactory senses and is another job where women are better than men, because they have a better sense of smell. The process involves piercing the ham with a horse bone needle, the ago di osso di cavallo, in three specific points of the muscle to assess how it is aging. The aroma left on the bone needle is then sniffed by experts trained to recognize and evaluate the aging process.
After thirteen months, only the hams that pass these stringent tests are certified and branded with the San Daniele brand. Each Prosciutto di San Daniele ends up having its own “identity card” stamped on it and this includes the identification code of the breeder, where the animal was slaughtered and also the producer. This guarantees the quality of the final product and constitutes a prestigious certification.
Eating Prosciutto Crudo is indeed a culinary joy and it is important to know a few things before buying it. Look for the brand on the skin, which makes it easily recognizable at the delicatessen, and don’t forget the characteristic guitar shape of the San Daniele Prosciutto.
Prosciutto Crudo should be sliced in front of you at the deli counter and eaten preferably that day. Even the journey from the deli home will alter the flavor of this delicate cured ham. Hand slicing is preferred to electric machinery, as the heated blades will also alter the flavor and quality of the Prosciutto.
It should be sliced very thinly with a percentage of the fat on every slice. It should literally melt in your mouth with the experts saying that Prosciutto San Daniele does not need to be chewed. Don’t forget the fat is what gives the prosciutto the sweetness and softness it is famous for. Without the fat, prosciutto would be a different product and the balance and ratio of fat to meat is one of the important characteristics of Prosciutto from San Daniele in Friuli.
Hope to see you in Italia . . . buon appetito!
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.