Seriously Italian: Speck from Alto Adige

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!

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Alto Adige is Italy’s northern-most province, anchored by the cosmopolitan city of Bolzano, sharing a long border and a powerful cultural connection with neighboring Austria. Also known as Südtirol, or South Tyrol, the land fluctuated between Austrian and Italian control at the turn of the last century, finally becoming part of Italy after World War I.

Speck is the most treasured food product of the Südtirol, a distinctly flavored, smoked, cured ham that represents well the character of Alto Adige’s cuisine —a delightful and nuanced merging of Northern European and Mediterranean traditions. Speck is much lighter in flavor than the heavily smoked hams found north of the Alps, but more robust than the delicate, Mediterranean-influenced prosciutto made in San Daniele, Parma, and points south.

After three weeks of dry curing, the hams are gently smoked, using low-resin wood at a carefully controlled low temperature, to ensure that the meat remains sweet and takes on a mildly smoky flavor to compliment the distinctive seasoning. The smoking is accomplished gradually, for a few hours at a time, over a period of several months. The theory is that a slow, gentle process allows the smoke to penetrate through the meat, whereas a more intense, faster smoking merely concentrates the outer layer.

The crisp Alpine air is considered another major factor in the flavor profile of speck. The aging process is conducted in ventilated rooms that quite literally allow the atmosphere of the South Tyrol to circulate around the meat for nearly six months, helping to form the thin layer of whitish mold that mellows and balances the flavor.

In the Südtirol, speck, bread and wine form a holy trinity that is the most basic of meals; you need only include a local cheese, pickles and a bit of fruit to round things out. I wholeheartedly endorse this simple way of enjoying speck, sliced thin and arranged on a plate and eaten by hand, the flavor uninterrupted, with pristine accompaniments and a bottle of Lagrein.

Beyond that, it is easy to incorporate speck into your kitchen. It is featured in countless traditional recipes of the Südtirol, or you can experiment with it in the same way you would prosciutto. Crumbled speck, crisped in a pan, with a bit of cream and some fresh herbs makes a delightful sauce for pasta or fresh asparagus. Scatter some arugula, sliced, boiled potatoes, thinly sliced, fresh radishes, chopped hard-boiled egg, and curly shavings of Grana Padano over a platter of sliced speck and dress it all with olive oil for a Tyrolean salad. Or, try some speck in a frittata with sautéed shallots, wild mushrooms and Asiago.

You can find speck in most Italian pork stores and salumerie—just be sure to make sure it is the authentic speck imported from Alto Adige. Online sources include Murray’s Real Salami and Formaggio Kitchen.

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