Cotto, crudo or Parma ham?
When it comes to salumi – cured, air-dried meats – the prosciutto is, by far, the most popular of the lot. But, bizarrely, few understand the diversity of the word. The varieties are many, says Sarah Borg, serving simple tasting notes and how to choose prosciutto crudo by its name.
There are many varieties of prosciutto crudo, widely known in Malta as Parma, a lossely used term, probably because, locally, the prosciutto di Parma is the most popular of the crudo varieties.
Prosciutto crudo is obtained by simply salting the hog thighs before they are hung to dry for eight to 16 months, all the while curing the meat with salt on the skin and with a fat-pepper-herb mixture on the exposed side of the thigh.
The cotto, as the name literally translates, is the cooked variety and its production process is rather different. The pig thighs are deboned, massaged with seasoning, steamed and allowed to cool, before being packed away for consumer consumption.
Varieties of prosciutto crudo are profusely cured all over Italy by small producers who happily do so without any EU and health authority restrictions. These would be the most authentic, where the animal’s terrain can truly be tasted. Sadly, these will never reach your local store, which, in turn, is riddled with other regulations of traceability.
The prosciutti that do make it should carry the Denomination of Protected Origin label (DOP). This ensures the consumer of the authenticity of origin, and that the strictest of production standards are applied.
It is important to note that there are huge differences in taste between commercially produced and artisanal food items, and this is also reflected in the price.
In this context, there is no such thing as cheap and cheerful. When it comes to food, cheap is a compromise on quality, taste, what you feed your body and ultimately your health. The price difference is determined by many factors, including the animals’ feed, terrain, ageing and drying process.
Know your crudo
The more popular types of Italian prosciutti crudi that are DOP certified and are better known the world over are:
• Di Parma (Parma in Emilia-Romagna) – perhaps the most famous of prosciutti crudi, its taste is a balance of sweet and salty.
• Toscano (Tuscany) – this is the one favoured by many for its saltier and more robust taste. The prosciutto di Cinta Senese, a wild boar typical of the Tuscan region, is exceptionally tasty. It is considered rare primarily because of its juicy, fatty meat, which contrasts starkly with its leaner, wild boar counterparts.
• Di San Daniele (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – a sweet taste with a smooth, creamy texture, it lends itself perfectly with delicate foods, even with delicately smoked fish, because of its cleaner palate.
• Di Modena (Emilia-Romagna) – a mild and pleasant taste, savoury but not salty with a pleasant, intense aroma.
• Di Norcia (Umbria) – its curing process lasts approximately 50 days, while its maturation lasts for almost two years. Its taste is delicate, savoury, but not salty.
Choosing your crudo
Ask to taste before you buy. The taste should be subtle, clean, with an aftertaste of the meat and certainly not of any artificial preservatives.
The colour of the meat should be a nice, healthy, reddish pink and the fat – which should not be removed but should be savoured with the rest of the meat – should be white to pinkish. The odour should be pleasant, never a hint of any other but fresh meat.
Do explore the Spanish crudi too. The Jamon Iberico and Jamon Serrano are deliciously sweet hams and are well sought after and preferred by gourmands.
Eating your crudo
A good prosciutto crudo is best eaten at room temperature on its own. It is widely used as a clean appetiser, served on a slate with, maybe, a nice chunk of good parmigiano di montagna – so much tastier than the pianura one, more commonly found in supermarkets.
The Tuscan prosciutto makes an exceptional statement, simply served with a Tuscan pecorino di fossa or di grotta, plenty of fresh crusty bread, grissini, a robust Tuscan cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and a ruby red Chianti. Nothing beats this as a starter, or indeed as a lighter meal, to share, in good company.
Prosciutto crudo is also widely used in cooked food recipes, especially those with chicken and veal… Think saltimbocca with fresh sage, and a porcini sauce on the side.
When fresh asparagus is in season, especially the tasty Gozitan ones, try this: two asparagus stems, a crushed cherry tomato, a sprig of fresh rosemary, all wrapped in a slice of prosciutto di San Daniele.
One portion per person as a side, with another roast vegetable side, is enough. Place in a baking dish, a generous dash of good olive oil, a sprinkle of salt flakes, freshly ground pepper, and pop in a hot oven until the asparagus is cooked through.
Sarah Borg co-owns The White Sheep in Gżira with her sister Tania Attard.