About prosciutto

Definition of the Istrian prosciutto

Istrian prosciutto is a long-life dried meat product, processed in the traditional Istrian manner with or without pelvic bones, dry-cured with sea salt and natural spices, air-dried without being smoked.

Natural conditions in Istria

Istrian prosciutto is mostly produced in the inland of the Istrian peninsula, where the climate conditions allow the meat to be salted and hence the prosciutto to be manufactured only in winter months. The wider Pazin area is the best indicator of the climate conditions prevailing in the central part of Istria. According to the figures published by the National Weather Service, the average values of temperature and relative humidity from December to March are favourable for the optimal natural meat drying techniques.
Low initial temperature (3 – 4 degrees Celsius) and gradual decrease of relative air humidity (65 – 70%), allow proper drying and ripening process of prosciutto. With the arrival of spring and warmer days, prosciutto-hams are transferred to cellar premises to ripen at an optimal air temperature of l3 – l5 degrees Celsius and a stable humidity level of 65 – 70 %. The Istrian climate is characterized by winds that are favourable to the prosciutto-drying process. According to the figures published by the National Weather Service, in the period from 1989 to1998 there was only 11% of wind-free days in the central part of Istria. The most common winds in the central part of Istria are the east and southeast winds, as well as south winds.
North and northeast winds, as well as the east wind blowing from Učka, deserve the most credit for proper drying and ripening of prosciutto under natural conditions. The natural conditions in Istria provide an ideal environment for traditional production of the Istrian prosciutto because, due to the influence of the Mediterranean climate, there are no extremely low temperatures here and the area is frequently refreshed by winds.

Hogs used for production of prosciutto

At local farms prosciutto has traditionally been made from heavy hogs (l50 – 200 kg) raised for personal needs, whereas nowadays the production has considerably expanded to meet the needs of the tourism industry. Over the last 20 – 30 years, white and meaty swine breeds have been raised such as the Large White, Swedish Landrace, Dutch Landrace and their half-breeds.
Hogs intended for production of the Istrian prosciutto are mainly fed with animal beet, pumpkin, potatoes, cereals, corn and other plants. Hogs are often kept grazing, so their diet also contains oak acorn, various roots and various subterranean mushrooms (tubers – truffles).

Technology of production of the Istrian prosciutto

The primary treatment of fresh ham is one of a kind, because the Istrian prosciutto has traditionally been treated together with pelvic bones. Hip bones remain on the leg i.e. the ilium bone (os ilium), the ischial bone (os ischii) and the pubic bone (os pubis), while only the sacrum (os sacrum) and caudal vertebrae (vertebrae caudales) are removed. Pig’s foot is removed at the ankle joint (articulus tarsi), so that the lower leg (tibia and fibula) remains joined to the proximal row of talus bone and calcaneus bone (talus and calcaneus). The hide, together with subcutaneous fat, is removed from the outer (lateral) and from the inner (medial) side of the leg, up to the height of about 10 cm proximal to the ankle joint. Prosciutto-hams treated in this way have a characteristic look as they are rather long and have an open surface.

The prosciutto salting and drying tradition

Salting and drying of the pork ham i.e. prosciutto are characteristic for the Mediterranean countries, especially for Italy and Spain. However, the German Schwarzwald and Westphalian ham, the French Jambon de Bayonne and the Finnish Sauna ham are also well-known, while a Country-style ham is produced in the USA.
As for the Republic of Croatia, the Istrian peninsula with its microclimate conditions and cultural environment represents an area where a unique prosciutto has been produced for centuries. From the ancient times to this day, the autochtonous prosciutto has been the product of the highest value in the gastronomic offer of Istria and the true pride of every Istrian.
The peculiar qualities of the Istrian prosciutto make it unique among many other types of prosciutto-hams produced all over the world. The traditional treatment of the fresh ham dates back to the old says when peasants on the local family farms needed larger quantities of fat which was rendered into lard and kept for future use.
The treated fresh hams are then dry-cured, exclusively with sea salt or seasoned with some additional natural spices such as pepper, bay leaves, rosemary and garlic. The drying and ripening process lasts 12 – 18 months in the climate conditions of Istria. The product is distinguished by its specific aroma and flavour, as well as by its moderately salty taste, uniform red color and the optimal consistency. Istrian prosciutto does not contain any additives dangerous to human health, as there are no nitrites or other unhealthy additives in the dry cure. The Smoke-drying is not applied in the production process of the Istrian prosciutto, so the final product does not include any dangerous carcinogens in smoke (polycyclic aromatic compounds, tar, formaldehyde, cresoles, ketons, carbon monoxyde, piridyne, etc.).
As a result of the above mentioned, Istrian prosciutto is an autochtonous top quality product and the most outstanding representative of the culinary art and tourism in Istria. Its authenticity has been protected with the authenticity label granted by the National Intellectual Property under No. G20020002A, which was published in the Croatian Intellectual Property Herald 2/2002.

Dry-curing (salting)

The techniques applied in the production of Istrian prosciutto include only dry-curing of hams. The treated ham is salted with sea salt only or with a mixture of sea salt and natural spices (the cure); mostly a mixture of sea salt, ground black pepper (Piper nigrum) and garlic (Allium sativum). The mixture used for dry-curing the Istrian prosciutto contains 94 – 98.5 % NaCl, l.5 – 3 % ground pepper and l.5 – 2 % garlic. Immediately before the salting i.e. dry-curing process, the blood left over in the ham is squeezed out of the femoral artery (a.femoralis) and other parts containing blood with strong manual pressure. Now the hams are ready to be well rubbed with the cure and placed one above the other in 3 -5 layers, with the medial (inner) side turned upwards. After seven days, prosciutto-hams are again rubbed with the same cure and placed one above the other, but this time the medial side faces downwards. Prosciutto-hams laid in this way are let stand for another 7 days, while the temperature in the perfectly clean room must be 3 – 6 degrees Celsius. After 7 days the pressing of prosciutto-ham takes place in the same or another room, where once again the air temperature must be 3 – 6 degrees Celsius, with the relative humidity of 80 – 90 % .

Drying and ripening

Prosciutto is dried in clean rooms exposed to the dominant winds (draught). The airflow speed can be adjusted by opening or closing the opposite windows, while keeping in mind that the optimal airflow speed is 10 cm/sec.
By the end of April i.e. after the hams have lost up to 25 % of their initial weight, they are transfered to chambers with monitored microclimate or to cellars without large fluctuations in temperature and air humidity. These premises must be protected from various flies and other insects (window screens), and the optimum air temperature is l3 – l5 degrees Celsius with the relative humidity of 65 -70 %. In such premises (chambers) the ripening of prosciutto-ham lasts about l2 – l8 months, subject to extremely mild exchange of air. The indicated microclimate conditions allow proper ripening process with progressive loss of water in prosciutto. The appropriate relative humidity in the ripening room is crucial to prevent growth of undesirable micro-organisms that would otherwise leave toxic residues and unpleasant smell in prosciutto.

Chemical composition of the Istrian prosciutto

The chemical composition depends directly on the type of breed, diet, raising methods and health conditions of pigs.
The average Istrian prosciutto contains about 66 % of dry substance, 40% proteins, l7 % fat, 8.5 % ashes, 85 mg/100g cholesterol and 5.5 – 6% salt. In addition to that, Istrian prosciutto contains Calcium (Ca), Phosphorus (P), Magnesium (Mg), Natrium (Na), Potassium (K), Manganese (Mn), Copper (Cu), Zinc (Zn) and Iron (Fe).
Moreover, the autochtonous Istrian prosciutto contains 18 essential and semi-essential amino acids, and in total 21 saturated fatty acids (SFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). The intramuscular fat of the Istrian prosciutto includes 40.5 % saturated fatty acids (SFA), 44.5 % monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and only l2.5 % polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA).
With regard to some more significant fatty acids, it contains l2% of essential acids from the Omega-6 group (arachidonic, linoleic, eicosardienoic), while 0.96 % of the total amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) belongs to the Omega-3 group (linolenic, eicosapentaenoic, docosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic).

Organoleptic qualities of the Istrian prosciutto

Istrian prosciutto is characterized by very intensive fermented pork flavour and aroma and has got a uniform red color, moderately salty taste and adequate consistency. During the dry-curing or salting process, the meat starts to soften due to the influence of salt and autolytic processes and the ripening process continues with slow and uniform loss of water.
The specific taste and aroma of fully ripened prosciutto derive from the products of proteolisis i.e. the decomposition of proteins (polypeptides, peptides, ATP and free amino acids). Lipolytic products arising from decomposition of fat, i.e. triglycerides, phospholipids, free fatty acids, and products of their further decomposition, also have a particular influence on its aroma, flavour and taste.
A very important fact is that what makes the flavour and taste of Istrian prosciutto so special is the moderate quantity of salt and other ingredients of the curing mixture i.e. natural seasonings.

Source: istria-gourmet.com, 16.09.2008

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