Time to Ham it up: A Guide to Cured Hams

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Robert Rabine shares some background and tasting notes

Prosciutto

You know it’s been a long, long winter when you a) run out of things to braise and b) get busted doing “repeat” dinner parties because you have run out of things to braise. So, in proper avoidance of all things braised and banal, I suggested to a dozen of my foodie friends we might have a dried ham tasting.  “A what?” they said.  “Dried ham… you know, like prosciutto,” that catchy descriptor for any kind of thinly sliced, air-dried meat.  But it’s more complicated than that. 

Dried meat, in general, has been around since the stone-age. Uncooked, dry-cured hams are commonplace in most European countries and the history of cured meats goes back to Roman times. The salt used in the curing process draws out the moisture in the ham as it is hung to age. The hams go through a natural air-curing process where they are exposed to cool, dry air for up to three years, resulting in preservation through dehydration. Dry-cured hams are also called “country hams.” The hams may also undergo several pressings to further eliminate moisture and intensify flavor. National and regional differences in taste, texture, and price are manifest through the various pig species used, their diets, different curing spices, and drying times.

We tasted seven different types: three from Spain, three from Italy and one from Virginia. The whole lot was surprisingly inexpensive: around $70 for about 100 slices. The results of our tasting are listed below ranked most favorite to least favorite. You might try something like this with your food-loving friends in conjunction with a wine tasting; it is always a good idea to pair regional foods with indigenous wines since they probably evolved together. For instance, match the Mangalica, Iberico, and Serrano with wines from Jumilla or southern Spain, although a good Ribera del Duero will do in a pinch. For the Prosciutto di Parma, try a Sangiovese di Romana. A high-altitude red, like Schiava, from Trentino-Alto Adige would match well with the Speck, and a Refosco from Friuli for the Prosciutto di San Danieli.  If you can’t find some of these, ask your local wine shop for assistance.

If you like ham, it’s a delicious way to break out of the winter doldrums. Make sure your ham is sliced “as thin as a bee’s wing” and serve it at room temperature to get the best mouth-feel. 

Jamón Mangalica This exquisite Spanish ham is made from the Mangalica breed of pig. They are originally from Hungary and live in a cold climate. It is noted for its high fat content and overall marbelization. They are free range.  Our absolute favorite. A buttery, silky texture with very dense, sweet flavor, and a faint hint of clove. Not too salty. Cured from 30-36 months. It has very limited production.