I was vegetarian for exactly 15 years. In my 20’s I finally decided that not only did I not like meat but it was also unusual and cruel punishment for animals to be killed for my sustenance. It’s obviously not as simplistic as that but I felt at peace with my decision. There would be times when my mother’s meat lasagna would tempt me but she developed a mushroom one that I came to enjoy even more and I was never one for large steaks or pot roasts anyway. There were actually cuts of meats that were weekly staples at my house that I simply loathed: liver, ossobuco, boiled tongue and, infrequently, brain. That would positively gross me out. Then, one night, sitting at the counter of Lucque’s with a couple of girlfriends, I saw a plate of jamon serrano pass me by and I simply had to have it. Much to the amazement and dismay of my friends I ordered it and methodically devoured it, all by itself, with barely some bread to accompany it. The spell was broken and I re-entered the meat-eating chain without the guilt I had expected.
I don’t eat meat frequently, still won’t go for liver and brain, and I am extremely picky about how the animals were raised and what they were fed or injected but now that I know so much more than I did then how terrible and inhumane the lives and deaths of farm raised animals are, I still find a way to eat protein. And my not so secret pleasure is still prosciutto or jamon which I will choose over bacon any day of the week. Italian imported prosciutto or Spanish jamon are hellishly expensive but, until a few years ago, they were the only option. Some American or Canadian attempts fell terribly short until an engineer from Iowa, who spent some time in Parma, took it upon himself to raise pigs and make prosciutto the way it should be made. He toured facilities all over Emilia, studied aging, curing and terroir and started La Quercia Rossa which is by now fairly widely distributed. Not exactly on the cheap side but their prosciutto comes very close to the perfect pig’s death and I am happy to report that they have now introduced a line of speck, another divine cured meat typically found in the Italian Alps.
Prosciutto has been made since Roman times – the word derives from the Latin perexssicatus or “dry thoroughly”. In less industrial times, the pigs would be killed in winter and the meat left to hang for a couple of years. Nowadays, to make prosciutto the pig legs are cleaned, salted and left for two months to drain blood and moisture. Then they are hung in well ventilated vaults (similar to wineries) for up to 18/24 months. The ventilation is actually an essential part of the flavor the meat will end up having, its terroir so to speak. Each prosciutto making region has its Product of Denominated Origin, be it Parma or San Daniele or Tuscan prosciutto. The first two are sweeter while Tuscan prosciutto is aged with pepper and juniper berry and decidedly more salty.A few nights ago I jazzed up a vegetable pasta that had turned out a bit too bland by slicing some prosciutto into thin strips and sauteeing it in a pan with a bit of olive oil until it turned crispy. Sprinkled on the finished dish, it added the crispiness and saltness the vegetables needed.
Prosciutto is pretty much a staple in my fridge and when time and inspiration are lacking or laziness strikes I put on the table what I poetically refer to as the “farmer’s dinner” – some slices of prosciutto, fresh bread and cheese. These days, with the windows open to the bright nights and the breeze that hasn’t turned into a hairdryer yet, it’s just perfect.