St Daniele di Friuli is situated in the North Eastern corner of Italy, bordered by Austria and Slovenia. The town is built on the side of the hills which rise up from the flat plains, at the point just before they become the mountains. It feels a world apart from the plains of central Northern Italy.
St Daniele’s position is unique, at an altitude of 252m it is the place where the cold winds from the mountains meet the warm salty breeze off the Adriatic, making a microclimate ideal for maturing and drying the prosciutto for which the town is famous.
Proscuitto di San Daniele is a dry cured ham, granted its PDO in 1996, and previously similarly protected by the Italian government in 1970. Like all other similarly protected products in order to ensure quality it has to be produced within the designated area to specified rules.
These days the ham is matured in modern factories, to the centuries old techniques, but of course, still with an expert hands on decision process at every stage of the process.
To be marked and sold as Proscuitto di San Daniele PDO, the hams must be produced within the town of San Daniele; currently there are 31 companies permitted to make the ham, and between them they produce about 2 and a half million hams a year.
To start with the thighs of pork arrive at the factory, these must be from Italian pigs, from the ten regions of Northern Central Italy – 4,200 farms are authorised. The pigs are fed on high quality cereals, weigh about 160Kg and have to be at least 9 months old at the time of slaughter. The thighs are delivered to the factory within an average 48 hours after slaughter and must weigh at least 12kg.
The thighs are checked, weighted, marked and trimmed before being chilled, to cause some moisture loss and to start the maturation process.
The thighs are carefully salted by hand and are left to rest on trays in chilled rooms, for 12 or so days depending on weight, then, in a process unique to San Daniele they are pressed to help the salt penetrate and improve the texture of the ham.
The hams are hung on metal racks and left to mature in cold rooms for a number of months. The marks you can see here – the black dotted tattoo is the mark from the farm, the mark with DOT and the date shows when the ham arrived in the factory. Other marks at this stage will identify the abattoir.
Slowly the hams change in colour, the outer fat becomes yellower, and they lose moisture. They are moved to the huge maturing rooms on the top floor of the factory when, on the days that the conditions are favourable the windows are opened so the unique air of St Daniele can work its magic on the hams. The hams are continuously monitored and tested during the maturing process. A typical mature ham will weigh at least 8.5kg, a loss of about 40% of weight.
During the drying process the a layer of pork fat and rice flour is applied to the exposed part of the thigh to keep it moist and soft – a process known as sugnatura. After a minimum of 13 months of maturing the hams have one last test, where they are pierced at 5 points around the bone, using a horse bone needle. The horse bone is highly porous, and an experienced tester can tell by the aroma if the ham is good. We smelt the hams, and were surprised to learn that the aroma from each of the 5 points was appreciably different.
Finally the approved hams are branded with the mark of San Daniele, and guarantee of quality.
The final product is served thinly sliced, and is a soft pale pink, with pristine white fat. The flavour is soft, sweet and delicate, and the texture meltingly soft. We enjoyed a plate in a typical prosciutteria, with local fresh cheeses and marinaded foraged mushrooms.
I was commissioned by Sapòrem to travel to Italy and to write about and share my experience visiting their four Consortia of premium traditional Italian products, of which Proscuitto di San Daniele is one. All opinions my own.