Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, includes recipes and articles like Shirred Eggs in Prosciutto Crudo Cups; Jerk-Style Country Ham and Pineapple Tamales; Europe On A Plate (European Dry-Cured Hams); and A European Ham Party.
by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
The world of European dry-cured hams, smoked or not, is enormous—and ever-expanding as new regional producers apply for EU (European Union) demarcations, support, and control. Some countries, like Italy and Spain, have well-developed artisanal traditions, codified by bureaucrats; others, like Bulgaria and Romania, simply have traditions localized family to family, about the way curry blends are handed down in India.
All that said, there are a bushelful of dry-cured hams that have risen to note on a global scale. All are readily available in the United States—or soon may be after crossing various import hurdles. Here they are in alphabetical order, to dispel any whiff of prejudice.
Many consider this dry-cured ham (Italian, KOO-lah-TELL-oh, "little butt," but more vulgar, something like "asslette") the pinnacle of Italian ham-making. From a handful of producers in Zibello, Bussetto (the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi), and surrounding Emilia-Romagna towns, all serried along the Lombardy border, culatello is made from only one part of the ham: the very hind thigh muscle. And only from pigs that have been bred to be much larger (and thus fattier) than those used for prosciutto crudo (see below). In traditional production, the meat is boned, salted, spiced, and tied up in a pig's bladder to hold its shape. It is then air-dried in curing sheds that are film-coated in various molds, dust, and grape must, all of which interact with the meat as the mythically deep, cool mists from the Po River drift through the windows. After curing, the hams are stacked in dirt-floored cellars and left to age at least another 10 months. The resulting meat is sweeter than prosciutto, certainly fattier, and mind-blowingly smooth. However, time is not on the side of culatello. Persnickety EU bureaucrats don't like the notion of mists, mold, must, and dirt. And warming weather patterns are tipping the entire region into the furnace. Perhaps as a harbinger of good news, an elite group of American producers have begun making culatello the old-fashioned way (but without those fabled mists). In any event, enjoy culatello in the simplest way imaginable: sliced paper thin. Screw the melon, figs, or any condiments. Just relish the meat.
This dry-cured ham (Bulgarian, ay-LAYN-skee BYOOT, "Elena leg") is a specialty from northern Bulgaria. Despite the nation's accession to the EU, the elenski but has not yet incurred various strictures and is thus still produced in truly artisanal fashion—which means quality varies. In traditional production, the hams are first singed to remove any hairs, then salted and summarily dumped in a postav, a barrel specifically made for the task. After about 40 days, the hams may be coated with a sour mixture of cornmeal and lime water (calcium hydroxide suspended in water) but are always stitched into bags (to protect against flies) and hung in the open breezes. They are sometimes also lightly smoked, a result not of culinary forethought but of their having been brought into the house at night and hung near the fireplace. The meat has a slightly sour taste with an aromatic, sweet finish.
Jambon d'Ardennes (French, jzahm-BONE dahr-DEN, "ham from the Ardennes") is a cured, smoked ham from the region of Belgium famous for the Battle of the Bulge. The hams are cured with a mixture of salt and herbs including juniper, thyme, and coriander; they are then smoked over beech or oak boughs until darkly colored. Finally, they are hung for many months, sometimes more than a year, yielding at long last a dense, chewy meat with a mineraly, herbaceous tang. Jambon d'Ardennes is particularly prized for its soft texture (originally a result of the cooler temperatures of northern Europe).
This dry-cured, not-smoked ham (French, jzahm-BONE duh buy-UHN, "ham from Bayonne") comes from the Basque region of southwestern France and has been a regional delicacy since at least Rabelais' time (around 1530), when he made it one of the meats at Grangousier's feast. The whole process is absurdly standardized: The antibiotic-free pigs must come from one of eight breeds, the pig must never be fed anything containing fish oil (an otherwise common practice along the coast), the meat must be cured near the Ardour River estuary with salt harvested from selected bays, and the curing must happen in conjunction with the weather—laid in salt from early November to late January or so, rubbed with a mixture of pork fat and flour (to retard the drying process) and hung until about May, then air-dried in the warmer summer months until July or so. (These days, some producers get the same effect through artificial climate control.) Sometime during the curing process, the hams may be rubbed with a pimento paste, which gives them their reddish translucence but also imparts a delicate sweetness to the meat that marvelously counteracts its fairly intense saltiness. In other words, all that standardization pays off big-time. Before sale, the hams are stamped with a "Basque cross" (sort of a flowery plus sign) and the word "Bayonne." The cured meat is usually sliced slightly thicker than, say, culatello, the better to experience the still tender but decidedly present chew, a texture achieved because of that earlier retardation of the drying process.
A bit of a rarity in the ham world, this boneless ham (French, jzahm-BONE duh vawn-DAY, "ham from the Vendée region") is first cured with sea salt, then rubbed with pear or plum eau-de-vie. It is lightly smoked over brush and herbs (often rosemary), resulting in a deep red color. The oblong meat is always sliced very thin and has a sweet, herbaceous flavor. Some French writers mistakenly refer to jambon de Vendée as a substitute for American bacon; it is in fact a more aromatic substitute for what we Americans call "Canadian bacon" (that is, smoked pork loin).
These hams (Spanish, hah-MOAN ee-BAY-ree-coh, "Ibérico ham") may well be the sui generis of European cured meats. Since 2007, Spain has surpassed Italy in both production and consumption of dry-cured hams. Ibérico hams are made only from the famed cerdo ibérico (that is, a specific breed of black pig that thrives in the Dehesa, the vast forests of southwestern Spain) or from pigs that are three-quarters cerdo ibérico. These animals are sometimes mistakenly called "black pigs," even though not all are fully black and many other European pigs are black as well (the noire de Bigorre in France, for example). The meat is salt-cured for about one day per kilo of weight at slaughter, then washed and air-dried for two to four years (sometimes even longer). This produces a highly prized mineral tang that contrasts nicely against the sweet, nutty finish, with a fine, almost undetectable ghost of saltiness hovering in the well-marbled, deep-red meat. Imagine the texture (but not the taste) of really fine sushi tuna. The finished hams weigh 30 to 40 percent less than they did at slaughter, and the fat will have taken on a rich, golden hue from certain molds (like Penicillin roqueforti, the same stuff in the superior French cheese) activated in the protein during the curing process, which occurs naturally in drying rooms with windows that can be opened or shut, depending on the weather. These hams are sometimes colloquially called pata negra ("black hoof")—but the name is a bit inaccurate since there are other black-hooved pigs in Europe and not all cerdo ibérico have black hooves. Among the most important sub-categories:
The most readily available, cured, unsmoked ham from Spain, jamón serrano (Spanish, hah-MOAN say-RAHN-oh, ("mountain ham") is made from the haunches of pigs fed a commercial grain diet and is considered inferior to the more precious jamón ibérico. The joint is first salted (but minimally, in order that the meat retain a sweet finish when cured), then stacked in much the way prosciutto crudo is cured, the resulting pressure on the hams forcing much moisture from between the intercellular layers. The hams are then washed and air-dried for six to eighteen months, often at a high elevation (thus the name). The result is a pale pink, soft ham—a delight on its own, atop a pizza, or in a creamy pasta sauce.
Like the Italian prosciutto, the word presunto (Portuguese, pray-ZOON-toh) simply means "ham." However, in English the term has come to demarcate a whole set of dry-cured hams from Portugal, similar to Spanish jamón serrano but with more chew, a slightly saltier flavor, and a little tang that's a great match to hard, aged cheeses. Look for specific regional monikers like Chaves or Alentejo (the latter made from those famous cerdo ibérico—see above). Some presunto have even achieved the coveted but tangled EU designation "PDO" (Protected Designation of Origin)—an assurance of quality, to be sure, but often a bargaining chip among nations in the union, sort of like a Good Housekeeping seal administered by bureaucrats.
Prosciutto (Italian, proh-SHOO-toh) just means "ham"—so it's necessary to differentiate, as we do in this book, between prosciutto crudo (kroodoh, "raw"—the cured but still technically raw ham, often sliced thin and draped over melon wedges) and prosciutto cotto (COH-toh—that is, cooked ham, often used as deli meat for sandwiches and a big part of Chapter 4). There are many regional designations of Italian prosciutto crudo: di Modena, di Norcia, di Capegna (from Modena, from Norcia, and so forth). The two most famous are di Parma and di San Daniele. Prosciutto di Parma comes from the Emilia-Romagna region, where pig-farming has a long history. Parma's thirteenth-century cathedral doors include a panel devoted to pig slaughter, representing the month of November. The pigs are often fed a diet that includes the leftover whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano production (see page 87 of the book); the meat is cured only with salt, left in an 80-percent humidity environment for about one week, then resalted and left again for a couple of weeks. It is then washed, hung, and dried, originally in the region's cool breezes, but in these days of global warming, more via environmental controls. Finally, the ham is coated in a paste of salt, pepper, and fat to slow down the dehydration, then hung for about one year to concentrate into a pale pink, sweet-salty meat with a creamy, off-white fat. A prosciutto di San Daniele undergoes a similar transformation but is darker, sweeter, richer, and perhaps a little chewier. It is more highly prized among aficionados; the difference is the result of the salt coming from the Friuli region near Venice and the dehydration process in the less humid, higher-altitude microclimates of that region.
This smoked, dry-cured ham (German, SHVAHRTS-veLL-der SHEEN-kuhn, "Black Forest ham") comes originally from the hilly, forested region near the university town of Freiburg in southwestern Germany. Because the hams are cold-smoked, the process goes much faster than that for jamón ibérico or even prosciutto crudo. The meat is dry-cured with salt, garlic, juniper, pepper, and other spices. These spices are actually a modern substitute for an older practice of shellacking the hams in beef blood before smoking, resulting in the characteristically black surface of the hams. After two weeks in the cure, the hams are washed off and hung for another couple of weeks to concentrate the meat as the fibers collapse. The hams are then cold-smoked (at temperatures around 77 F) for several weeks over simmering fir limbs and their sawdust. The resulting meat is quite flavorful, pale red, and lightly marbled with pristine white fat; its taste is bold enough to stand up to a host of preparations (besides being lovely on its own with grapes and dried apricots). One warning: Many hams sold in the United States as "Black Forest hams" are actually just deli meat. While a fine substitute in recipes that call for wet-cured ham (beginning on page 169), these knock-offs bear no resemblance to the real thing.
These boneless, smoked, dry-cured hams are a specialty of the Austrian and Italian Tyrol (pronounced shpehk or spehk, depending on which side of the national divide you buy it on). The hams are dry-cured with salt, crushed juniper berries, bay leaves, nutmeg, and other aromatic spices. The meat is cold-smoked (around 68 F) over beechwood for about a week. Speck has a slightly chewy texture and an intense smoky flavor, which makes it a far more luxurious substitute for bacon in many recipes. But the best way to have it may be the simplest: thinly sliced, with horseradish and pickles on dark rye. A word to the wise: in Austria, Speck sometimes refers to salted, cured ham fat, similar to Italian lardo, a wonderful if heart-stopping indulgence, best in small bites, not piled high on a sandwich.
These Eastern European hams (Romanian, SHOON-kah, simply the word for "ham") are the quintessence of the European artisanal spirit: still made individually, usually just for the farmer and his kin, and cured around Christmastime. The exact spices mixed with the salt differ from family to family; the hams are hung for six to eighteen months and lose about 25 percent of their original weight. Although Romanian şuncă is not necessarily smoked, it often in effect is, just by virtue of being hung near the fireplace in the family home. The resulting meat is quite salty, something like an American country ham (see Chapter 3), as well as a little grainy and chewy.
This dry-cured English ham must be cured and crafted within two miles of the city of York. The smoking (over oak sawdust) takes a little more than two months and results in a grainy, somewhat coarse meat, full flavored but quite salty. Legend has it that the original hams were smoked over the sawdust left from the construction of York Minster, but culinary folklore is rarely a guide to truth. only to provincial jingoism. In truth, these hams are cured with saltpeter (that is, potassium nitrate)—and thus retain their pinkish hue despite the smoking process. They are ready to eat when finished but are often roasted or even boiled to be served with a buttery Madeira sauce.
This page created April 2010
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