Let us get one thing straight: this is not the typical package of ham you find in your local superstore. While the word itself may simply be translated as “ham,” the product is about as far from our concept of ham as one can get. Considered by many to be a “gourmet” item, the popularity of prosciutto began with the great interest in the Mediterranean diet during the late 80’s and early 90’s. However, since then, it has developed a cult of its own. For all its popularity though, much of what makes it special is unknown to many. So, let us explore this delicacy.
As mentioned before, prosciutto is simply the English word for Italian ham. In Italian, the word derived from the Latin prefix pro, meaning “before,” and the verb exsuctus, which means “to suck the moisture out.” So, while the word defines a product when used in English, it describes the process (aka dry-curing) of making the product in Italian. There are 3 basic types of prosciutto: smoked, which is called affumicato, and the other 2 depend on whether or not the ham is served cooked (cotto) or uncooked (crudo).
Beyond just involving the hind leg or thigh of an animal, the actual making of prosciutto is a slow and steady process which often takes up to 2 years. Initially, after the ham has been cleaned, it is salted and pressed for approximately 2 months in order to remove all blood from the meat. Following this, the ham is washed to remove excess salt and hung in a dark and well-ventilated room in order to fully dry, with colder weather being preferred. After the ham has completely dried, it is finally hung in a stable environment for up to 18 months to age. Post-aging, it is ready to be sliced and used on or in anything, from antipasti to pizza and anything in between.
The first known mention of the word prosciutto in English occurs in the writings of Antione C. Pasquin: writing in 1842, he states in Italy & Its Comforts that, “Its mountain hams (prosciutto), prepared in the villages of the Appennines.” Going into slightly more details, Current Literature from 1891 writes that, “As an appetizer, for instance, the Italian would want some prosciutto. This is a ham cured but not cooked, which has been kept in the smoke room for a long time.” Finally, perhaps painting an elegant and romanticised usage of our ham, Evelyn Waugh tempts us with “Melon and prosciutto on the balcony” in his 1945 classic, Brideshead Revisited.