Cotto o crudo, you choose...
Known as only 'cotto', this is one of many cold meats that Italians adore, maybe because cotto is the ham that Italian children grow up with. Its rosy pink hue and delicate flavour lend to many more complex dishes but most simply, you don't get a better bambino combo than 'un panino con proscuitto'.
Cotto translated means 'cooked'; prosciutto stems from the Italian verb prosciugare, 'to dry out'.
Prosciutto is made from the hind leg thigh of a pig or wild boar. In Italy we assume it's pig, but many regions make their versions and effectively prosciutto could be made from lamb for example, it would then be named prosciutto di d'agnello - lamb prosciutto, or even beef, prosciutto di manzo, which does exist!
Making cotto is a much quicker and simpler process than crudo, containing only a few basic steps. After the meat is carefully selected, it is deboned and injected with brine. A process called zangolatura involves a lengthy massage, up to 48 hours, for the brine to evenly distribute. The hams are then ready for cooking in aluminium dishes at the low temperature of 70 degrees for 13-20 hours and cooled before pasteurisation to be packaged for commercial sale. Notice, prosciutto cotto is is not smoked.
Wild boar and pork have always been an integral ingredient in Italian cooking, even today, rural families will keep a pig (or ask a neighbour farmer-friend to keep one for them) purely for slaughtering purposes. There's a strong sense of family tradition and occasion when winter arrives and the temperatures are just right for hanging salami and soppressa. The family pig will be fattened on kitchen scraps and the finest feed to ensure its meat is of the highest quality. It's a question of pride in the food a family produces but also a a question of seeking to keep the produce as simple and healthy as possible. No preservatives are added except sea salt. Allegedly ancient Roman recipe books have been found with notes on how to cure and cook boar leg for preservation, I guess we can safely assume cotto has been around a long while.
Prosciutto Crudo is known as Parma Ham or 'Prosciutto' outside of Italy and 'Crudo' in Italy. Italian families generally see crudo as more special than cotto. It costs more and lasts less. It also tastes very different.
The actual word 'prosciutto' has no PDO status (not protected geographically), it's a generic Italian word meaning 'ham', however, two kinds of Prosciutto Crudo are protected by geographic status - Prosciutto Crudo di San Daniele PDO and Prosciutto Crudo do Parma PDO and these two lovelies are the main contenders in Italy's charcuterie business.
With a salty and sweet flavour, crudo's texture is what stands out the most - it's melt-on-your-tongue soft. Sold sliced finely by butchers or banchi di gastronomia in supermarkets, you can read about this gastronomic utopia and how to order your ham in our blog post here. Crudo is sometimes sold as a whole ham and sliced at home if you have a meat slicer, which, as you guessed, many Italian families do! The reason is simply that freshly sliced Prosciutto is undeniably the best.
Standing before the resplendent banco di gastronomia, you'll find options on the cold meats shelf and two of them will always be:
Prosciutto di San Daniele PDO from Friuli Venezia Giulia.
There are other prosciutti, which are beautiful and worth tasting if you can:
Prosciutto di Sauris IGP, made exclusively in Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia, lightly smoked with beechwood following a very strict tradition.
Prosciutto di Norcia IGP, produced in the mountains of eastern Umbria, salted twice and aged for 12 months at 500m above sea level using selected breeds of pigs from the area.
Speck Alto Adige PGI from the Alpine South Tyrol region, smoked and brined and packed with flavour (read about Speck here)
The difference between prosciutto flavours is influenced by geographic conditions but depends heavily on the breed of pigs. In 2017 a scandalous prosciutto operation was blown open! Danish pigs were being used for the production of Parma Ham, allegedly producing more meat and thriving on Italian soil, so much so, that over 1 million hams were confiscated and countless farmers jailed. PDO (Protected Destination of Origin) rules protecting geographical status are notoriously strict, it's imperative the pigs are of local bloodstock.
Unlike cotto, the bone is not removed, the said hind leg is cleaned and salted while pressed gently to extract as much blood as possible without breaking the leg bone. After two months, it is washed repeatedly to remove the salt and hung in a cold, dark environment until dry. Lastly the ham is stored for 24 or 36 months hanging at room temperature in enormous rooms packed with prosciutti. The older the ham, the more intense the flavour and the darker the colour. PDO status means no preservative except salt may be used on the meat.
To test the aging process, a quirky horse bone 'needle' is poked into the ham at various points to sample the aroma of the meat. An experienced craftsman knows exactly at which point his hams are ready. The nutty scent does not linger long and is wiped away with a swift flick across his apron.
Prosciutto di Parma PDO
Stamped with the Parma Crown, only hams from a select area around Parma in Emilia-Romagna may be used. The company is a little guarded about their production methods but they do reveal their secret - "through a magic combination of climate, tradition and passion" - in a Prosciutto festival Finestre Aperte (Open Windows) in September where producers open their windows and doors for visitors to peruse the factories while their green spaces fill up with long tables ladened with all kinds of Parma Ham delights. You can just imagine it...
Prosciutto di San Daniele PDO
This ham is uniquely 'guitar' shaped due to the trotter included. With strict geographical limitations, these pigs must reside in the lush, green region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, where many a culinary treasure originate.
What's the subtle difference you may ask?
Parma is pinker and saltier due to a foggy climate.
San Daniele is sweeter and red in colour, aged for longer and more exclusive with only 30 producers compared to Parma's 200.
Crudo di Parma is classically paired in Italy with a few things, one is melon. There's something about the soft saltiness striking a crisp sweetness that is truly sublime and must be tasted to be believed.
Crudo di Parma and fresh figs is another timeless culinary delicacy
Crudo di San Daniele and grissini (wrapped around for true Italian style)
Crudo di San Daniele and burrata
Crudo and Pinot Grigio (according to the Prosciutto di Parma guide).
Cotto and funghi on a pizza or in a tramezzino
Cotto and garden peas in creamy fusilli pasta.
Saltimbocca (meaning: jump into the mouth) has to be mentioned as a wonderfully Roman dish - veal cutlets wrapped in crudo are skewered with a sage leaf and pan-fried - delizioso!
Classic tortellini from Bologna are made according to one, and only one, recipe - pork loin, prosciutto crudo, mortadella and Parmigiano Reggiano.
But truly the best way to taste prosciutto, crudo or cotto, is simple - no pairings or recipes needed. Lift a freshly-cut slice and place it on your tongue,
or on a piece of fresh bread and then on your tongue...
As any Italian bambino would say, "Ma che buono."