Often outside Italy I hear people referring to “Italian prosciutto”, but that definition doesn’t mean much, and it doesn’t guarantee automatically if it’s a good product or not 🙂 there are so many varieties of cured ham in Italy, with different characteristics, that to be appropriate we should talk at the plural, and we have to specify each type if we want to speak a bit more deeply about this subject, and to really understand type to type.
First of all the origin of the name: “prosciutto” comes from the Latin word “perexsuctum” which means “dried”.
As always, there are good quality products and lower quality products (the latter almost always made with extra additives/preservatives added during the curing process). Here I am going to show the cured hams which are protected by a PDO/DOP certification (Protected Designation of Origin) or the PGI/IGP certification, the ones whose quality is certified and the ones having official procedural guidelines to keep certain quality standards. This is the symbol of the DOP/PDO certification:
Just to understand, most of the hams produced in Italy are made with pigs coming from other countries and they don’t have any consortium controlling the whole process: every year in Italy are produced about 18-20 millions of thighs (which are mostly used for the DOP/PDO certified products listed below), but about 60 millions of thighs are imported from northern and eastern European countries, to be processed in Italy and then sold as “made in Italy” at cheaper costs, and in most of cases at lower quality.
Obviously there are also small producers making very good quality products without being part of any DOP/IGP consortium, but in those cases you need a personal relationship based on trust to be sure that what you are buying is a good quality product, so in those cases it’s to judge case by case.
All the following hams are made with pigs thighs which are usually following the procedural guidelines of Parma and San Daniele hams (the 2 leading consortiums in Italy), they have similar techniques, but what’s changing are the locations where these hams are being aged: this is giving their typical organoleptic characteristics.
And what’s also important, all of the following DOP/PDO hams (and some of the IGP/PGI too) are produced without adding additives, colorants or preservatives (so no nitrites/nitrates/etc. are added), because they are prohibited by the strict rules of the Consortiums. And because they are not needed if who makes the hams is a skilled and expert artisan working only good quality and controlled raw ingredients with safe techniques. Moreover, they are usually not smoked too (with just few exceptions).
Basically they use just four ingredients: pork, salt, air and time 🙂
This I think is very important because as you maybe remember not long ago the WHO (World Health Organisation) warned about the consumption of processed meat because is related to the development of some tumors (when they are eaten regularly and often, although those numbers are not so huge as some medias/websites interpreted), especially because of the nitrites and the smoke which are usually used in most of the processed meat products available on the worldwide markets (they are not dangerous in itself and as you know there are always safety levels, but this is interesting especially if you cook those products because during the cooking process the nitrites can develop in nitrosamines, but also in the stomach they do unless next to those products you eat also enough vegetables containing vitamins C and E, acting as inhibitors against nitrosamines)…that’s the point, in those studies they put everything in the same group and without making differences between bad quality and good quality, and they never mention that there are also some good products which are made just with salt and nothing else, like these good quality products that I’m going to list below, but also some others deserve to be quoted: for example also the Dalmatian ham (Dalmatinski pršut) in Croatia, the Istrian ham (Istarski pršut) in Croatia too, the Kraški pršut in Slovenia (on the border with Italy), the Jambon de Bayonne Bio in France, and some of the best Spanish hams too (as the Joselito) they all don’t contain extra additives/preservatives too. Of course, also these products shouldn’t be eaten every day, as always moderation is the key, but there is a difference so let’s say it and let’s specify it.
Let’s see now which are the most famous Italian hams and let’s see their characteristics a bit more in the details and with the help of some links.
- Prosciutto di Parma DOP (Parma ham): the most famous and the one with the highest numbers of production, with over 8 millions hams per year. It has a very long history and its roots date back to the Ancient Rome time: already at that time the people living in that area was famous for their hams, Cato de Elder in his “De Agri Cultura” described the process of making hams and it was very similar to the nowadays process. This ham has the PDO/DOP certification and its own official procedural guidelines to strictly follow: the pigs must be born and grown exclusively in 10 specific Italian regions and they must be specially bred Large White, Landrance and Duroc breeds, their diet is regulated by those guidelines (grains, cereals and whey from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production), and they must be over 9 months old and having a weight around 160 Kg. Then the whole process has to be made in a limited area, south of the Emilia way not less than 5 km from it and up to a maximum altitude of 900 meters, bordered, to the East, by the River Enza and, to the West, by the Stirone stream. The fresh thighs have to rest 24 hours long in refrigerated rooms until it reaches 0 °C (at which the thigh it’s easier to trim). After the trimming the thighs lose about 24% of their original weight. Then comes the salting: the pigskin is covered with humid sea salt, while the muscular parts are covered with dry salt. This is a delicate operation that has to be made at the right temperatures: a too cold thigh will absorb less salt while at higher temperatures the meat could get worse. After this operation is going in a refrigerated room between 1 and 4 °C with 80% humidity for about one week and gets a second thin coating of salt (after having removed the first residual salt) which is left on another 15 to 18 days depending on weight. Salt is the only preservative used in the processing method, no chemical elements are allowed. After this time there is a further 4% of weight loss. Next the hams hang for a period ranging between 60 and 80 days in refrigerated rooms, at 75% humidity and at a temperature between 1 and 5 °C. During this step the air exchange is very frequent and after this period of time there is another 8/10% of weight loss. Then the hams are washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt and impurities, then hung in drying rooms for a few days. Now the hams are hung on frames (called “scalere”) in well ventilated rooms with large windows that are opened when the outside temperature and humidity are favorable, and by the end of this phase there is another 8/10% of weight loss. Then it comes the “sugnatura“, the greasing phase: the exposed surfaces of the hams are softened with a paste of minced lard, salt, ground pepper (and sometimes rice flour too) in order to prevent the external layers drying too rapidly. In the 7th month, the ham is transferred to the “cellars”, rooms with less air and light and hanged on racks until the curing is completed (and during this last phase there is a further 5% of weight loss). By law Parma Ham is cured at least 1 year (starting from the date of the first salting), and some may be cured as long as 3 years. After this time the hams are controlled by inspectors of the Quality Institute and branded with the identifying mark featuring the famous 5-pointed crown and some codes making each ham 100% traceable. Hams produced in the same region but not meeting the requirements set by the Consortium cannot be branded with the official certification mark and are not authorized to bear the name Parma, even if they originate from the Parma area.
- Prosciutto di San Daniele DOP: the second for numbers with about 2.7 millions of hams per year. It’s produced exclusively in the hilly territory of San Daniele, a small town in Friuli Venezia Giulia region where the winds coming down from the Alps give their typical organoleptic characteristics. Also this ham has its own official procedural guidelines and also the PDO/DOP certification. It is recognizable also for its typical guitar shape. The pigs must be born and grown exclusively in 10 specific Italian regions, their diet is regulated by those guidelines (grains, cereals and whey), they must be over 9 months old when slaughtered, a weight of at least 160 kg and the fresh thighs must have a minimum weight of 11 Kg and it must have a layer of external fat of at least 15 mm, skin included. The thighs to be processed must have no less than 24 hours and no more than 120 hours. First the fresh thighs have to rest in refrigerated rooms until they reach 0 °C (at which the thigh it’s easier to trim). Then comes the trimming and then the salting, using just sea salt, and it lasts a number of days equal to the kilograms of each thigh. After this operation the residual salt is removed and it comes the “pressing” phase typical of San Daniele process, helping the salt to penetrate better in the meat and giving a better texture. Then it’s going in a refrigerated room between 4 and 6 °C with 70 to 80% humidity resting for 60 to 90 days. After the resting phase the thighs are washed and then put to dry in specific rooms for a period of time of 7/8 days. After that time it begins the aging phase which lasts usually 8 months and during this time comes 1 or 2 times a process of “sugnatura“, the greasing phase: the exposed surfaces of the hams are covered with a paste of minced lard, salt, ground pepper and rice flour. The whole aging process must last at least 13 months from the first step.
- Valle d’Aosta Jambon de Bosses DOP: this is a mountain cured ham produced only in the small area of Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses in the Aosta Valley region at about 1600 meters of altitude (“the highest ham in Europe”), it also has the PDO/DOP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. It’s also a ham with a long history: some registers confirm its existence back to the XIV century, and in this case the production is limited, less than 10.000 thighs per year. The pigs must come from Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto or Emilia Romagna regions, they must be over 9 months old when slaughtered and a weight of at least 160 kg. The fresh thighs are being salted and also herbs are added: sage, rosemary, juniper, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, pepper and local mountain herbs. Any other additive/preservative is forbidden. During the first 15-18 days the thighs are massaged to push out all the blood. In the past the “maturazione” occured in humid cellars and barns, but nowadays the aging process takes place in controlled and clean rooms where those specific climates are reproduced. Then the thighs are being washed and dried, and on the cut side it’s applied a mixture of pepper, and then starts the aging time for at least 12 months and up to 30 months, in rooms were is reproduced the climate of the rascards, traditional granaries typical of this mountain area, where they lay on a bed of hay. The final product has to have a minimum weight of 7 kg.
- Prosciutto di Carpegna DOP: it’s produced in the village of Carpegna (where the local hams are produced since the XV century) and it has the PDO/DOP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. The pigs must come from Lombardy, Emilia Romagna or Marche regions and must follow the same standards of the pigs for Parma ham and San Daniele ham. The salting process is no longer than 11 days and is made with salt, pepper and in some cases juniper, and the aging process is at least 13 months long. The final product has to have a minimum weight of 8 kg. Also for this ham any other additive/preservative is forbidden.
- Prosciutto Toscano DOP: The pigs must come from Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Marche, Umbria, Lazio or Tuscany regions and must follow the same standards of the pigs for Parma ham and San Daniele ham. It must be produced in Tuscany and it has the PDO/DOP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. The thighs are trimmed giving a typical arch shape, and for the salting phase are used salt, pepper and spices. Few years ago its official procedural guidelines have been updated and now any other additive/preservative is forbidden. After a first resting phase where the thighs lose liquids the thighs are washed and then it comes the “sugnatura“, the greasing phase: the exposed surfaces of the hams are softened with a paste of lard, salt, ground pepper and rice flour in order to prevent the external layers drying too rapidly. The aging process has to last at least 10 months for the hams with a weight between 7,5 and 8,5 kg, and at least 12 months for hams with a weight over 8,5 kg. Then it’s branded with the identifying mark featuring the text “PROSCIUTTO TOSCANO DOP” written on 3 lines over the image of Tuscany region and 4 stars, with a code that makes each ham traceable.
- Prosciutto di Modena DOP: It’s produced in the area of Modena, neighboring the more famous Parma, and it’s also an area famous for pig farms. It has the PDO/DOP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. It has a pear shape, a minimum weight of 7 Kg. The pigs must be specially bred Large White, Landrance and Duroc breeds and they must be over 9 months old and having a weight around 150-160 Kg. The aging process is at least 12 months long and also for this ham any other additive/preservative is forbidden.
- Prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo DOP: It’s produced in the area of Veneto region (only some villages). It has the PDO/DOP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. It has a minimum weight of 7-8 Kg. The pigs must have a weight around 150-160 Kg. The aging process is at least 10 months long and also for this ham any other additive/preservative is forbidden.
- Prosciutto Crudo di Cuneo DOP: It’s produced in between the provinces of Cuneo, Asti and Turin. It has the PDO/DOP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. It has a minimum weight of 7 Kg. The pigs must be specially bred Large White, Landrance and Duroc breeds and they must be over 8 months old and having a weight around 150-160 Kg. The aging process is at least 10 months long and also for this ham any other additive/preservative is forbidden.
- Prosciutto di Sauris IGP: It’s produced only by 2 producers in the village of Sauris, between the mountains of Friuli Venezia-Giulia region, and it has the PGI/IGP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. It’s different than all the other Italian hams because it is lightly smoked with smoke made with beech wood and for no more than 72 hours. The smoking room is between 15 and 20 °C. This ham has a minimum weight of 7,5 Kg. The pigs must have a weight around 160 Kg. The aging process is at least 10 months long and also for this ham any other additive/preservative is forbidden.
- Prosciutto di Norcia IGP: It’s produced between the villages of Norcia, Cascia, Preci, Poggiodomo, Monteleone di Spoleto, all in Umbria region, and it has the PGI/IGP certification and its official procedural guidelines to follow. This ham has a pear shape and a minimum weight of 8,5 Kg. The pigs must have a weight around 160 Kg. The aging process is at least 12 months long. Its procedural guidelines say that “salt and pepper are used for the seasoning”, but in this case they don’t explicitly specify if other additives are allowed. So there could be some using additives too, the solution to know it is to read well on the labels, as always.
- Speck dell’Alto Adige IGP: it’s a smoked ham typical of Trentino Alto Adige, that area of Italy where German language is spoken. It’s made with deboned thighs, it’s smoked and it has the PGI/IGP certification. But their procedural guidelines allow to use not only Italian pigs but also pigs coming from other countries of European Community, and it’s also allowed to use additives/preservatives, although there are some producers that make it without additives/preservatives. There is to read the labels.
Other smaller productions without EU certifications where additives/preservatives are not used too:
- Prosciutto di Cormons: made since 3 generations by the family D’Osvaldo in Cormons, near Slovenia, this ham is lightly smoked and aged between 16 and 24 months. No additives/preservatives are used, just salt, pepper and natural aromas.
- Prosciutto di Nero dei Nebrodi: it’s a ham made on the Nebrodi mountains in Sicily, made with pigs of a specific old breed called Nero dei Nebrodi, amazing animals, which are living free range. Not everyone, but there are some producers that make these hams with no additives/preservatives.
- Prosciutto di Cinta Senese: it’s made in Tuscany with the famous ancient breed called Cinta Senese, the only pig breed in Italy which is a PDO itself.
- Prosciutto di Venticano: it’s produced in the village of Venticano since the ‘800. It’s made with Italian pigs and it’s aged for at least 16 months (but there are some hams aged up to 4 years). No additives/preservatives are used.
- Prosciutto Irpino: it’s produced in Avellino province. It’s made with Italian pigs and it’s aged for at least 18 months. No additives/preservatives are used.
- Gammune di Belmonte: It’s produced in the village of Belmonte in Calabria region, it’s similar to a Culatello, and it’s made only with pigs of the ancient local breed called Nero di Calabria. It’s seasoned with salt and bell pepper powder, and aged for at least 16 months. No additives/preservatives are used.
- Prosciutto di Nero di Calabria: made with pigs from the breed Nero di Calabria (which live almost wild), and aged up to 36 months. No additives/preservatives are used. There is an association of producers called “Nero di Calabria”.
- Prosciutto montano della Val Vigezzo: it’s a smoked ham produced at 800 m altitude in Val Vigezzo, an area of Piedmont region, using only thighs of Italian pigs. It’s aged for 15-18 months. No additives are used.
There are others too, smaller productions, but as I said you need a direct relationship with the producers or the sellers to be sure that no extra additives are used, and to be sure of the origin of the meat.
Resuming: nitrites/nitrates are usually needed (on industrial scale) in processed meat as salami, sausages, etc. where the meat is cut into smaller pieces and then aged, to avoid the botulism risk. But in the hams, where there is a whole piece of meat, as I previously said they are not needed. I repeat once again, this is true if who is making the hams knows perfectly his job, if he is very skillful and if the meat used is good quality respecting certain precise standards and trustworthy steps during their curing process. Processed meat is not to abuse, but since there are already nitrites/nitrates in most of salami and sausages my opinion is that at least we can avoid them when eating the hams by buying good quality products. And to buy good quality products we have to know well some more information.