Here in the US we just say prosciutto, we get it easily sliced and packaged and sometimes from our local Italian market we get a small portion sliced. But usually here we get the question, Parma or Argentinian Prosciutto? There is no comparison and any Italian would raise his eyebrows!
The word prosciutto comes from the Latin pro meaning before and exsuctus meaning to suck out and in this case, it is the moisture. The origins of prosciutto crudo (raw) date back to before Etruscans and pre-Romans. Most attribute this way of curing meat with salt to the Celtics. What is key, are just four things required: the hind thigh of a pig, sea salt, air and time. And in reality, the recipe has not changed. No additives, no nitrates or preservatives, and no cooking, this is all natural!
The traditional method is the hind thigh cleaned in cold storage, pressed or massaged with sea salt, and resting. And eventually hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the ham; the best results are obtained in a cold climate. Remember we used to work in seasons, meats were cured in winter. Now we provide environments to replicate where the ham is then left until dry. When the ham is completely dry, it is hung to air, either at room temperature or in a controlled environment, for up to 18 months. The law says minimum of 400 days.
The difference between the US and Italy in terms of Prosciutto – is only one wears the crown. The King wears the five pointed crown and that is Prosciutto di Parma DOP. Strict regulations from the Consorzio dictates it can only be produced from the certified hind legs of specially selected heritage breed pigs raised in 11 regions of Italy according to the highest standards, on which they are monitored, inspected, and traced. Then in quality control process are salted, pressed, hung and loved for up to 3 years.
But wait, in Italy the question can get very complicated because you have Prosciutto Colli di Mantova, Prosciutto di Carpegna from Marche, Prosciutto di Norcia from eastern Umbria, Prosciutto di Saturis from Fruili, and of course, Prosciutto di San Daniele! And each has a similar but different recipe. Like the San Daniele; the leg is pulled at the joint to give the ham its classical straight, guitar-shaped appearance and then is placed in salt. After this period, it is brushed off and placed in a press for 1 week so that all the serum comes out and it takes on its typical flattened shape. Again the ham is salted and massaged with a mixture of mild pepper, and then is hung to dry. Then it is washed and covered - where there is no rind - with a lard mixture of pork fat, rice flour, salt, pepper and herbs to prevent the surface from drying out too much. In Tuscany they use juniper, rosemary and black pepper in the pork fat sealing process.
In reality 50 % of all consumption of prosciutto is Prosciutto di Parma – it has a royal reputation!
There is also one other distinguishing factor between Italy and the US, Italians will buy the whole ham. Usually for the holidays, as it makes an elegant presentation. Besides thinly slicing the supple and velvety pork, the entire leg will be used, not a scrape goes to waste. The leathery skin that protects the ham from oxidation is washed, blanched before roasting with the bones to make stock. The large center cut sliced for antipasti and a medley of recipes. The top end of the leg can be ground for fillings or meatballs. The fat is whipped for crostini. And the bottom is the most concentrated being both drier and saltier and therefore is diced used in recipes or crisped for toppings. All cured!