The secrets of a delicacy
Firstly, peasants on Istrian farms traditionally used to raise only one pig at a time (not dozens like elsewhere, and the pigs here have never been brought to pasture), which reached unusual size and weight.
The pig was supposed to feed the whole family with meat, and especially lard, all year long. Believe it or not, this pig regularly had one cooked meal a day made of a mixture of various vegetables mixed with bran or maizena flour and every kind of household slops. Pumpkin and beet were planted exclusively for hogs, and in the springtime people used to pick various herbs for the same purpose. During the last months before slaughtering, the pig was intensively battened with corn to further increase its weight.
That is also the reason for the first distinctive feature of the Istrian prosciutto that makes it recognizable among others – it is extremely big and consequently particularly succulent. Hog slaughtering was a day long ritual, a reason for family gathering and festivities.
Specialized experts form the ham legs into a classic prosciutto shape, then salt them just a little bit, allow them to slightly drain, and after few days they put them in wooden cases provided for the purpose, where the hams are subjected to pressure by stone slabs (of verified weight, neither too light nor too heavy) in order to drain the excess blood, so that the meat becomes solid and compact.
After one week, depending on the weather conditions, where the preferable weather is cold and clear with the north-east wind called ‘bura’, the hams are taken out of the case.
The hams are then properly smeared all over with a mixture of bay salt, pepper and finely chopped dried rosemary and laurel leaves. Special attention is paid to the uniformity of these ingredients throughout the surface of the ham, while greater quantities are stuffed into the highest risk spots, especially around the joint bone sticking out of the meat, where an undesirable guest could easily sneak in (a fly, for instance, to deposit its eggs, whose maggots could ruin all the hard work).
The prosciutto hams are brought to the attic, where the windows are wide open (despite the wintertime), to dry in bura, which is a north eastern, dry and cold wind, typical for Istrian winters and a blessing for prosciuttos. Drying of prosciuttos in bura is one of the two most important prerequisites for a top product.
If the weather ‘’turns’’ to jugo, a warm and humid wind blowing from the south, the second most frequent wind of our peninsula, that is a real threat for the hams.
In that case, prosciuttos are transferred to ‘lišjera’, a little hovel in the yard or an apposite room inside the house, where there’s usually a fireplace in the corner (in which previously meals for the pig were prepared). A little fire is lit in order for the smoke to protect and dry the prosciutto.
However, that has to be a mild fire, so the prosciutto wouldn’t turn into smoked ham. The Istrian prosciutto should by no means smell of smoke. When the weather changes again, prosciuttos are quickly returned to the loft.
With the arrival of springtime i.e. the first warm days, his majesty is moved to the cellar. The cellar is normally a step or two lower than the yard; it has a stone pavement with no insulation. It faces the north, has a small window or not any at all, so it’s lightless.
The temperature maintains a constant, optimal freshness between 14 and 16 Celsius degrees all the summer. All the above mentioned prerequisites are crucial for creation of the noble rot that allows a perfect maturing of the ham. Prosciuttos are hung on wooden beams in the same cellar where wine barrels are kept.
It is here that prosciutto gets the crucial qualitative metamorphosis of its taste and smell.
Besides ‘bura’, this is the most important, if not decisive, condition for a delicacy called – Istrian prosciutto.
In addition to that, patience, care, but also inspections on a regular basis are required. Every twenty days the host punctures the prosciutto with a short wooden stick and carefully smells it.
This ritual is worth seeing, because the host’s face expresses all the emotions in discovering the quality of the product.
The host then skilfully stuffs that little hole with pepper. Unfortunately, the worst may happen, namely the worminess. (To prevent that, some households have cages covered with a mesh so the fly won’t reach the prosciutto.)
If that adversity is timely detected, it is sufficient to remove the maggoty portion thereof, and then to smear again salt and pepper over the healthy meat.
The problem is just of aesthetic nature, but such prosciutto cannot be sold. That’s even better; it’ll be eaten by the inmates.
The right moment. When to cut or, in other words, to begin eating prosciutto? The later the better; by no means before August, hence at the end of summer. Prosciutto is cut with a special long and thin knife, designed exclusively for prosciutto cutting.
It is sliced with long, delicate and careful cuts, so a joke says – like playing a violin. The slices are first smaller to become ever bigger, the color turns ever redder, the smell gets more and more intense. Sporadic white threads of fat are just signs of additional quality.
There is a custom in Istria – the slice has to be as long and big as possible and not too thin. It is eaten with fingers and after two or three bites it has to melt in your mouth.
Bigger prosciuttos can even be cut at the end of the year, for Christmas of New Year’s Eve or, if properly kept, the next summer, without losing any of the quality.
Well, we have revealed the seven secrets of the quality of Istrian prosciutto, a traditional autochthon product. If these secrets do not seem particularly mysterious to you, then you are mistaken, because precisely their simplicity is the secret of all secrets. It can be translated as love, patience, and long lasting experience …
Source: istria-gourmet.com, 16.09.2000