If I have to be honest, there are many other European hams that I prefer to prosciutto di Parma.
My absolute favourite would have to be Pata Negra. The first time I tasted it was in Italy and a friend cut me a generous helping. We were sitting at a heavy table, none to clean, with the ham hanging precariously on a very thin rope in the cellar. It was freezing in there but I was warm in jersey on top of jersey. There were no beautiful plates or crisp white tablecloth – just the ham, a sharp knife, two plates, two glasses and a bottle and bread. I had slices of ham only and it became one of my memory moments. I have these moments when I taste something truly exceptional and it is committed to my mind, never to be forgotten. I have had few of these in my life, but I remember every one of them with absolute clarity. Pata Negra comes from Belotta in Spain and these Iberian hams are exclusive to this region. It is the only pig in Europe that is allowed to roam free in the Andalusion mountains – actually the Extremadura mountain. Apparently they are related to the wild boar and the oak trees that thrive in the micro-climate there provide acorns which allow them to live on acorns only. On top of all this, the hams are made traditionally and the entire process (pickle, rinse, salt or conserve, allow to dry and age) is done by hand. They are hung in winter right through summer so that the rise in temperature allows the fat (which is about 30%) to melt into the meat. It is common knowledge that these fats are mainly monounsaturated.
In second place I would have to put the Culatello from Parma in Italy. It is less fatty, boneless and cut higher up. Culatello, literally, means small backside. It has a velvety, spicy dark red flesh and is quite delicious.
San Daniele would be number three – I can hear the protests from all you chefs and all the people in the know, but this is my blog so I can put my opinions here. San Daniele hams are produced in Friuli in the Venezia Giulia region and has been produced there for centuries. Creamy, pink flesh with a heavenly salty-sweet taste is addictive. Beware.
Friuli is higher above sea level and the air is bitter cold and quite dry. The taste is quite different to the famous Parma ham (which is, admittedly, a gorgeous ham). Also, they keep the bottom leg bone in – to my mind, of course, bone does improve flavour – but then, taste is subjective.
In fourth place we will go to France with it’s Jambon de Bayonne, an air dried ham, suitably stamped. It is a wine cured ham and lightly smoked. Don’t let them cut your slices paper thin, though and TASTE the ham, for goodness sake!
If I have to go further I would put the Bulgarian Elenski in fifth place.
I ate it in Warsaw, not Bulgaria, when a business associate in Warsaw gave me some for breakfast from the ham he had bought the week before. I found it quite interesting to hear how they make it. It is salted, put in the bottom of a postav (a little barrel made just for this) and kept in the salt for forty days. What IS this forty day thing? After this they, apparently, hang it up to dry. I never did find out more about it, though. The really strange thing is that it is then covered in a mixture of mealie meal and lime milk!!!! I only had it that one time but the taste never left me and I am sure that I would recognise it if someone would like to send me one.
I would have to mention the German Black Forest ham as we get it locally and we have it quite often. Air dried, salt cured and smoked in pine – it has a very intense flavour and I can only eat tiny bits at one time – unlike the others that I can happily consume in enormous amounts. It comes from the Black Forest and has a characteristic black outer covering. Today the covering is obtained by applying spices on the outside before it is smoked. In times gone by, they coated it with beef blood. A slice of dark bread, lots of butter and cold riesling – even if you have it for breakfast.
The Chinese make an excellent one too – but I refuse to tell you about that after their escapade into our waters recently.
Now, can someone, anyone tell me why I cannot find anything of this nature in South Africa? I am desperately trying to find something like this here.
Also, why do retailers and deli owners always, always just stock one brand of ham and never the others when they are as easy to find?