The pig is nothing but an immense dish which walks while it is waiting to be served
Charles Monselet (nineteenth-century Parisian restaurant critic)
Humanity has devised myriad ways to prepare, preserve and present pork, the world’s most widely consumed meat. Italy is famous for its salami, its hundreds of varieties of cured pork. Arguably the most famous of these is prosciutto crudo. While most of the hams produced on the boot go to Emilia-Romagna, Friuli, Veneto and Lombardy for the ‘crudo’ treatment, a good many flow in a different direction: to Piedmont, where another tradition—that of prosciutto cotto, or cooked ham—is also going strong.
According to Cato, already in the 2nd century BC northern Italians were making hams by layering legs of pork with salt and then drying and smoking them, while it was common practice throughout Europe in the Middle Ages to salt and preserve hams. Here in Piedmont, prosciutto cotto, noted for its delicate flavor, easy digestion and versatility has thus been a part of the region’s food culture for centuries.
Prosciutto crudo is deservedly famous and held in great prestige thanks to the painstaking craftsmanship that its proper creation necessitates. The characteristics of these hams depend not only on the quality of the meat and the salting and drying process, but also on ‘special ingredients’ such as the atmosphere and the air in which they mature. For example, many claim that the wonderful San Daniele ham of Friuli owes at least part of its unique flavor to the bora winds that whip up the Adriatic sea, over Trieste and into the hills, where the open-air drying racks on which the hams mature are situated.
Not that prosciutto cotto is a basic product. While there is no extended maturation process, the skill in creating hams of good quality lies in the deceptive simplicity of the technique, which is dependent on three factors: high quality raw ingredients, temperature and timing. And nobody knows this better than Prosciutti Rosa.
One of Italy’s foremost producers, Prosciutti Rosa operates out of a small factory at Isolabella near Poirino, on the outskirts of Turin, turning out 800-1,000 legs a week. While for all intents and purposes this is a commercial, industrial set up, artisanal elements persist, quality is high and controls are stringent. For just over fifty years now, Prosciutti Rosa has been turning out cooked meat products—from tongue to boiled salami, from zampone to sausage—but its biggest seller is its soft pink prosciutto cotto.
Last week I visited the Prosciutti Rosa factory, where production manager Fausto Giardina walked me through its spotless, impressive production line, explaining every step of the process.
The locally raised and butchered pork legs arrive from certified Piedmontese abattoirs and their first stop here at Isalobella is a wide table surrounded by four men wielding super-sharp knives. With almost disturbing speed but great skill, they slap out the bone, trim the fat and prepare the legs for a massage.
A conveyer belt chugs the trimmed legs into a tunnel where they are pierced and massaged by moving panels of thick pins. This serves to soften the meat and release the muscle sinews in preparation for brining.
The legs are packed into tall tubs and covered with brine, sugar, garlic, herbs and nitrate salt. These tubs are then attached to a spinning wheel, three at a time, where they turn slowly for ten minutes a trot. They then rest for a couple of hours and spin again for another ten minutes. This process goes on for 24 hours. Next step is to wrap the salted legs in a protective covering, tuck them neatly into specially-shaped pressure cookers, and seal and stack them on a trolley. They are now ready for the steam room.
Unless prepared ‘at home’, pretty much all commercial prosciutto cotto is cooked using a steaming process. In these huge ovens, the packed hams are steamed for 12-14 hours, until their interior temperature reaches 69-70 degrees. Once out of the oven, they are pressed further into their typical, almost quadrangular form, chilled, and then returned to the ovens to be pasteurized.
Sitting at the Prosciutti Rosa dining table, set with platters of thinly sliced, pink ham, Giardina explains that the authenticity of the ham can be seen in the uneven distribution of color—the fattier the meat the pinker the color and vice versa. Mass-produced hams often display an unnaturally even pinkness, the cause of this being over-usage of nitrate salts, which give artificial color and mask any short-cuts taken in the salting, steaming process.
Prosciutto cotto is a greatly valued product here in northern Italy, and Rosa’s is certainly one of the most highly regarded. This comes as no surprise when you see the enthusiasm and dedication shown by the people behind it. So how is it best served? Either on its own with bread or with melon as an antipasto, sliced thickly and grilled, incorporated into flans, soups and salads, or simply wedged into panini.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team