Mario Unclogged: The Hams of Italy

Mario UncloggedAh, prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Daniele, and prosciutto di Carpegna: three hams from three places, each with its distinct flavor and yet similar technique. In each locale, the hams are salted for 30 to 45 days and then hung in the vaulted rooms and halls to cure for as little as 400 days and as much as 3 years to achieve the delicate balance of pure porcine pleasure and the fragrance of the wind and the dew of the specific geography.

I have always found the sweetest hams to come from Friuli, (prosciutto di San Daniele), where I think that the cooler climate allows them the use of a little less salt (in fact, the only ingredient other than the pig's leg).

Parma (and its Langhirano hills) is the home of those eponymous hams that are perhaps the most famous in the world. Their specific flavors are a result of their exposure to winds blown down the valleys off the Tyrrhenian Sea from Liguria, and they help create a complex perfume unique to prosciutto di Parma.

Carpegna hams from the Pesaro Urbino region of Le Marche are perhaps the most rich and porky in flavor, a tad drier in younger ages (not a bad thing), and hard to find—legally—in the U.S.

In fact, from the mid '50s to 1990, Italian prosciutti were not legally imported into the U.S., but, since then, the understanding and love for these hams has grown exponentially—along with sales—as a result of the rise of American gastronomic interest.

The fat around the perimeter of prosciutti, which many Americans fear, is essential in the creation of the complexity of flavor and the ethereal texture, as it slows the drying process (imagine the difference between a ragu Bolognese cooked one hour and one simmered four hours). For many people, there is no difference—but for you and me? Huge!

Culatello, which comes from just north of Parma, is made in the lower plains, where the winds are not as dry and the resulting temperature and humidity render the usual curing techniques useless. The process never worked as well, but out of this difficulty came culatello. It's the largest muscle in the leg of the pig and is cured in a bladder after being salted and rubbed with wine. Culatello is not legally imported yet into the U.S. for the same moronic breakdown in porkplomacy that barred prosciutto and mortadella for so long. My dad (at Salumi, in Seattle) makes a damn good one. If you can get my sister Gina to let you buy one, you should—but I doubt she will ...

The next big thing in American hamdom is jamón bellota de pata negra, a Spanish ham that will cost four times as much as the best prosciutto Italiano, but I won't tease you about that until it's available—supposedly in November of this year. Let me say one thing, though—watch your back, Italy!

The best recipe ever for prosciutto di Parma?

Find a melon or fig or peach of the best quality, and cool it to 52 degrees. Slice it and the prosciutto, and lay gently on a plate or a board. Want to serve a wine with that? Try a Tocai or Malvasia from the hills of Parma.