All real prosciutto starts with a pig. Not just any pig will do: it has to have just the right amount of surface fat and the right amount of "marbling". Marbling refers to those lines of fat that run right through the muscles of the animal. The tern "marbled" has been used in the description of meat for millennia, although not always, of course, in English. It was "marmorandus" in Latin, and it probably described a similarity to the white streaks through a rare kind of "rosso antico" marble. Until about fifty years ago, fatter pigs, which therefore had fatter hams, were preferred. By thirty or so years ago, leaner hogs had become dominant in the Italian prosciutto industry -- the market demanded thinner pigs, and specifically, animals, which contained less cholesterol. The same thing happened in all American and European pork markets.
Today, the bigger Italian prosciutto "consorzi" (producing and regulating bodies) have pretty much settled on a specific pig, a fifty-fifty crossbreed of Landrace and Great White swine. Both Landrace and Great White swine are fairly lean and relatively low in cholesterol. They are also noted for their large hams and long bodies (lots of bacon and small but meaty shoulders -- you didn't think they throw away the rest of the pig, did you?)
By far the largest Italian prosciutto organization is the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma (http://www.cyber-kitchen.com/parma/) which accounts for about four million pigs per year -- about one third of Italian production. To stay competitive in the market, other Consorzi pretty much follow the rules set down by Parma, which, for the most part, are now also enshrined in Italian and EC laws and regulations. The short version of the Parma process is as follows:
The pigs must be of the Landrace/Great White cross and at least nine months old. They have to weigh between 340 and 420 pounds before slaughter. That eliminates all the real fatties because they would weigh more than 420 pounds before they reached nine months of age. Parma prosciutto pigs have to live the last four months of their short lives in North Central Italy where they are fed selected grains and whey from the Parmesan cheesemaking process. Other regional prosciutto pigs have similar residency and dietary requirements.
Processing the prosciutto must start within 120 hours of slaughter with no intervening refrigeration. Hams are manually bled and then hung by the still attached feet, usually for as much of the 120 hour limit as possible, consistent with production realities. Prosciutto hams are "salt cured" before drying, and that part of the processing is called "la Salagione". First, sea salt is rubbed into the ham. The salted ham is refrigerated on non-porous surfaces for seven days, after which remaining salt is rubbed off, and a new coating of salt is applied. That's left on for another 15 to 18 days depending on the weight of the ham. Temperature and humidity are controlled and ham position is varied to control salt penetration. Higher humidity allows more penetration. The idea is to allow just enough salt into the meat to preserve it without making it too salty.
Next comes "il riposo", two months during which the hams are hung to "rest" in refrigerated rooms. During "riposo" temperature and humidity are again varied to ensure uniform salt penetration. At the end of "il riposo" comes "la toelettatura" during which the hams are washed and trimmed to remove excess salt. Parma hams lose their feet at this time. They are then beaten with wooden mallets to soften the edges and hung to dry for three to six days (depending on how wet they got during "la toelettatura".
Next is the four month "pre stagionatura" (pre-aging) in specially designed dry and airy compartments -- prosciutto tenements -- exposed to aromatic breezes that connoisseurs say only blow in Parma (or wherever their favorite prosciutto is made). When the four months are over, hardening and drying have sealed the surface. The salt has penetrated to the bone, but it's still just salted meat, not yet prosciutto. The ham is now in its seventh month after slaughter.
During the seventh month comes "la sugnatura". Exposed meat is covered with softened lard. Only a thin line is left uncovered where the lean meat joins the legs' own fat. During the next three to five months of aging, "la stagionatura", moisture from the interior of the hams, migrates toward that lines of exposed meat, and, in doing so, it gradually spreads into the previously hardened and dried surface areas. The meat gradually changes color from dull dry brown to the characteristic soft rose of prosciutto. When the color change is complete, we have real prosciutto and not just salted ham.
When a prosciutto is ready, the Consorzio inspectors arrive to puncture the ham with their slivers of dried bone at five crucial points. Their noses are their guides -- if the judges don't think the smell from each of the five points is "perfetto" (perfect) the ham fails the crucial "puntatura" and is rejected. In Parma, about 700,000 of the eight million hams processed annually don't pass. Those that make the grade are branded with the Consorzio "Crown" that marks them as "Prosciutti di Parma. Those that fail are sold as less prestigious ham. If it's not specifically labeled as "Prosciutto di Parma" or "Prosciutto di Somewhere" on your restaurant menu, the odds are you are eating a failure or an uninspected ham thatís from some "Nowhere". It's not necessarily bad, but it's certainly not the best.
In total, the hams that become prosciutto are hung for at least 300 days during pre-aging and aging -- the minimum legal requirement in Italy and the EU. Those that are destined for shipment to the US are hung an additional 100 days to meet US Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements. Italian prosciutto sold in the US therefore has a richer flavor and smoother texture than the same brand and grade of prosciutto sold in Italy. It's also correspondingly pricier.
Prosciutto facts: Where's the trotter? Parma prosciutto is sold footless, "a coscia di pollo", which means "like a chicken leg". San Daniele prosciutto, controlled by the second most prestigious Consorzio, has the foot attached as does other Veneto prosciutto controlled by a separate Veneto Consorzio. San Daniele prosciutto is salt cured for a shorter period than that of Parma, but the hams are initially stacked atop one another making the salt penetrate faster. Later in the process, they are again laid down and stacked with weights. Because of the stacking, San Daniele prosciutto is stiffer and also, of course, much flatter. They tend to be shaped like guitars. Tuscan prosciutto is much saltier than Parma and Veneto types, and it's like that on purpose: Tuscans traditionally make unsalted bread and the extra salt in their prosciutto supplies the difference.
Spices and taste? Parma and San Daniele prosciutto have no spices, but there are some other garlic and onion prosciutti and some peppered versions, which are usually made at the artisan or home level. To my liking, any spice detracts from the flavor of the meat, but, as the ancient Romans always said, "De gustibus non est disputandum" ("Taste is not something to argue about"), so eat what you like. Every Italian has his or her own favorite prosciutto and many get passionate about it. Discussing food in loud voices -- but, mind you, not arguing about it -- is OK. On a more general note, it's also good form to discuss food with restaurant employees and ask for recipe modifications (although both may turn out to be worthless efforts if the employee turns out to be non-Italian). If the manager comes to your table, which is often the case, talk about the food. Ask him his name and where he's from and ask if he'll recommend a regional dish. A few questions about details of menu items will almost surely get you better service, and may get you a free taste of food or glass of wine.
Bone or boneless? "Osso o disossato?" Some prosciuttos are boned before or after processing, usually so that they can be sliced by machine. Purists will say that machine slicing ruins prosciutto, but an unskilled human slicer doesn't help the meat either (too thick). In general, prosciutto "on the bone" is higher quality, because the best prosciutto makers process their highest grades that way. But a poor prosciutto will never get any better just because it's on the bone. Some folks argue passionately about this, too. Some "boneless" prosciuttos sold in the US are really just prosciutto hams cut the long way after processing is complete. You only buy the meaty half, without the bones. He other halves are sold to delis and restaurants that then slice from the bone by hand in front of satisfied customers.
How to eat prosciutto? Transparently thin slices, with nothing else, is the standard connoisseur's answer. About three of these paper-thin slices is the normal serving. But there are many splendid Italian recipes that use prosciutto as a flavoring or ingredient. Standard advice is to "sliver" (cut into tiny strips) but not to "chop", but I think that's mostly esthetic. Try wrapping a slice of prosciutto around a slice of fresh or dried fruit -- with soft fresh pears it's amazing. Or wrap it inside thinly slice veal cutlets and braise in "robusto" olive oil. Don't eat prosciutto in public on white bread with "processed American cheese food" -- what you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business, but we don't want to send Italians to the hospital with heart failure.
Want to make your own prosciutto? It's possible, but the old Italian joke is that you make prosciutto by buying your pig a one-way ticket to Parma when it's four months old. If you really insist, there are simple directions at http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/org/AB/readme/old/issue8/useless.html. Wait!!! Look at the titles of other articles linked to this Internet site!! It's a joke! There's really no way you can make your own and get real prosciutto -- unless, of course, you are a Parmesano and have been in the business for centuries.
Other "prosciuttos"? Spanish serranos and French jambons are other air-dried salt-cured hams and they are quite respectable. In general, serranos are slightly drier than prosciutto, and jambons are saltier, but there is wide variation among brands. Some German hams, and especially dried Schwarzwalder ("Black Forest") Schinken are similar. All three of these countries (and Italy and lots of other places) also put up air-dried hams of wild local pigs. As might be expected there is wide variety of taste and quality in all of these products -- they're mostly wild and local. There is, as also might be expected, an Internet site with info on EU-produced meat products that include prosciuttos and other national variants: http://europa.eu.int/comm/agriculture/qual/en/pgi_03en.htm.
And yes, there is US-made prosciutto, processed to the same exacting USDA standards that improve Italian prosciutto that is sold in US markets. The If you have prosciutto in a US restaurant or buy it in a delicatessen, it will be American domestic unless specifically labeled otherwise. Some American prosciuttos are "gourmet" quality, and some definitely are not. In the competitive US market, price can be an indicator of quality, but only in places where several varieties are sold. In the US, high quality domestic prosciutto runs at about half the price of good imported Italian prosciutto. Because of market demands, US prosciuttos are usually about half the size of Italian prosciuttos and therefore have a shorter curing cycle -- maybe seven to eight months. To get smaller hams, you slaughter younger pigs, so American-made prosciutto is often more tender than imported, although its hard to notice because both are always sliced so thin. Turkey prosciutto? Ostrich prosciutto? Other meat prosciutto? It's made, and it's regulated by the USDA, but I have never tried it.
Take some back to the US with you? Don't even think about it. You can't carry prosciutto in legally. Prosciutto is one of the easiest products to detect for the 52 "sniffer dog" teams that the USDA deploys at US ports of entry. Importing prosciutto is strictly a licensed corporate venture. Origin and meat processing conditions are strictly enforced by the USDA, as are transportation parameters -- mostly temperature and moisture rules. There is an on-the-spot fine of $250 and, of course, confiscation of the product for immediate incineration, if you get caught smuggling prosciutto.
Finally, is there anything better than prosciutto? Save up your Euros, and try some culatello. It's made from only the high, most tender muscle from inside a ham that would otherwise become a whole Parma prosciutto. Processing starts immediately after the animal is slaughtered -- only in November or December -- and takes up to fourteen months to produce the three to five kilo pear-shaped "miracle." They are only made in one small part of Parma and the best is said to come from Zibello. Culatello is seldom found in shops even in Italy, but you can order it up, for delivery in Europe, on the Internet at about $20 per pound -- and the smallest piece you can buy is about four pounds. A whole culatello (minimum 3.7 kilos, 8.14 pounds) can be had for about $165 (http://www.parmashop.it/salumeria.html). That price does not, repeat, does not, include the cost of courier delivery, which is the only available shipping option. More info on this wonder is at http://www.giuseppeverdi.it/ing/luoghi/culatelloit7.htm, and at http://www.parmashop.it/culatello.html (in Italian).
Enough talk! Go out and get some prosciutto!
P.S.: Where did all those pigs originate? The first Landrace herd was registered in Denmark in 1896 after the Danes (famous for "Danish hams") bred local wild and domestic pigs with the older British and Irish "White" lines (http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/swine/DANISHLR/). The Great White breedname is descriptive and refers to pigs bred for size from white colored Yorkshire and Lincolnshire herds that existed before 1800. Great White swine are also often called Yorkshires, but Yorkshires are really only one of several Great White varieties (http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/swine/YORK/). (If you're into pigs, you can find info on all the important breeds at http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/swine/. There are also links to other livestock types.)