Italians are known to take their food and wine very seriously! Not only do they treasure fine ingredients, but there is an art to preparing their foods that is steeped in tradition and pride. One such delicacy is Prosciutto (pronounced pro-SHOOT-oh), a salt-cured ham that is typically served in paper thin slices. Salty and sweet with an underlying buttery flavor, the meat practically melts in your mouth. If you are new to prosciutto, this simple and traditional recipe for Prosciutto and Melon has been served in Italy for centuries, and is the perfect place to start!
But before we get to the recipe, let’s start with little bit of history. When buying prosciutto, there are two types of available: “crudo”, which in Italian means raw, and “cotto” which is cooked. The crudo is by far the most popular version and is made using the same salting technique that Cato the Elder wrote about..in 100 B.C.! The meat is taken from the hind legs of a pig and dry-cured immediately. It is never frozen or smoked and contains no added sugar, preservatives or spices. It is simply ham and salt.
There are 10 designated regions throughout Italy where prosciutto is produced, each with it’s own rules, regulations and flavors. Much like a wine sommelier can taste different flavor notes identifying the regions where grapes are grown, Italians believe the flavor of the meat can be affected by how the pig is raised, what it eats, how it is slaughter and even by the air it breathes!
Most Americans are familiar with Proscuitto di Parma, named after the Parma region where it is produced. Here, they start with pigs that have been raised on a specific diet of cereal grains and whey protein created from local Parmigiano-Romano cheeses. The pigs must be a minimum of 9 months old and 340 pounds at the time of slaughter. The ham is then cured for a minimum of 13 months before it is ready to be sold. Curing causes the meat to lose half its weight due to the salt. However, the longer the meat cures, the more concentrated the flavors and the softer the meat.
Where to Buy: You can purchase prosciutto at most specialty butchers and even some larger grocery store chains, like Wegman’s and Whole Foods. I suggest looking for one that has been cured for at least 24 months whenever possible. Don’t let the price per pound scare you! A little bit of prosciutto goes a long way, so there is no need to buy huge package.
Preparing: In traditional Italian cuisine, a slice of prosciutto is served wrapped around long wedge of melon and then cut with a knife and fork. However, I like to keep things simple (and bite-sized). Start by simply cutting the melon into large cubes. Take one slice of prosciutto and, depending on its size, tear into 4-5 pieces. Pile one piece of meat on top of the melon and hold in place with a toothpick. Repeat until all the prosciutto is gone. These bite-sized treats are great to pass around on a platter at a party or as snack to munch on in the afternoon.