Recently we were happy to invite to dinner a couple who are friends of our friend Fr. A. Since we were meeting them for the first time, all that we knew was that (a) they are both Italian and (b) they are newlyweds and (c) they are visiting California and staying with Fr. A.
I was a little intimidated by the idea of hosting Italians from Rome, but I decided that I would have to take the risk, which included getting the second prosciutto from Salumi ready for cutting and service.
The risk was calculated. At the very least, I’d get an impartial assessment; hopefully they wouldn’t care too much about hurting my feelings and they would know real prosciutto. How could any Italian person not know prosciutto? I’m sure it’s possible, but odds are not at my house.
I would find out if I’m crazy for trying.
If I had known that these newlyweds were also gourmands (the husband works in purchasing and sales for a company that distributes gourmet foods from Italy) I would have understood a bit better the gravity of my risk-taking.
Friday Night Menu
house-cured “prosciutto” with honeydew melon
Spaghetti alla carbonara (house-cured guinciale)
Salad with grilled peaches, lavender, blue cheese and arugula
Caprese salad (Mr. Karl’s garden tomatoes, my basil, Deacon D’s olive oil)
Braised beef with polenta and fresh sweet corn
Chocolate mousse with fresh berries
New Clairvaux wines, Quartermaster’s beer, homemade lemoncello
The dinner went well. Everyone ate, even the littles (who were well behaved, considering that dinner started at 8:30). If everyone eats everything, it usually means it’s okay.
It’s been a whole year since we began this project with the first pig that we purchased, curing the hams in the style of prosciutto — a simple salt cure (not brine) followed by a coating in lard and cracked pepper, wrapping in cheesecloth and hanging in the Curebrewzer for nearly twelve months.
About four months ago, I unwrapped and tested the first of the two prosciuttos, which went to a friend. I wondered whether our friends like it, and learned on another recent evening that it was used to make panini (with aioli, shaved onion, and a bunch of other good stuff) — lunches (and late-night snacks) for a Catholic retreat group. A well loved ham brings much happiness.
I’d say the prosciutto was even better with an additional four months of aging. The rind was a bit firmer, the ham itself was just as tender, but flavors were more concentrated, more porky, especially the fat had a sweeter, more buttery flavor. I’m pleased with the outcome for this first attempt. I have some ideas for the next two hams that began the air-drying process in the Curebrewzer last week. I plan to hang them for 18 months, and remove the cheesecloth after 9 or 10 months to let the air harden the rind more directly.
The Italian gourmet food dealer took a turn with the knife to slice the prosciutto, which I had rigged up on an oven roasting rack (maybe I do need a better solution). For twenty minutes he patiently (I need a different knife for this) replenished the tray of shaved paper thin slices of ham (like he’d done it a few times before), enjoyed with a slice of melon. We ate well over a pound of the thin slices. When the couple said their thank-you’s and good-bye’s, the husband shook my hand and told me (in his charming Italian accent), “You made me very happy as an Italian man tonight! Thank you!”
So Adventures in Pork continues, with renewed vigor. We have another pig waiting at the butcher right now, which means two more hams going in to cure in the near future. We have friends raise these pigs for us, and it turns out to be an affordable way to buy high quality meat. And, it’s fun to do something special like this prosciutto project.
Incidentally, I was at Costco recently and came across a display — not for prosciutto — but for Spanish Iberico ham, a close relative of prosciutto.
The hams from Spain have their own following, and it’s well deserved. Iberico is a very robust flavor that I really like, in part due to the special breed of pigs raised for the ham, and their diet, which, includes feasting upon acorns. The hams are also cured a bit longer than prosciutto. There are certain Iberico hams that are aged up to three years, and in that time develop a concentrated porky flavor.
Displays like this at a warehouse store signify that Americans are developing a more mainstream interest in foods that come from time-honored, traditional preparation methods. And it also says that there’s money to spend in this area of cuisine. Or it says salt plus pork plus fat equals good.
Things like diet and space for the hogs, and things like time and care in the process are what make items like Iberico ham (or prosciutto, or artisan cheese, etc.) so expensive. To save money, and because it’s more fun than a plastic package from the warehouse store, we’re making our own prosciutto-style locally-sourced ham, and sharing it with family and friends — whether new, old, or Italian. It’s a tiny little Catholic joy for me.