Istrian prosciutto

Secrets of a Delicacy

In the tradition of the Istrian gastronomy the prosciutto - pršut is the top and the measure for all the exquisiteness, for every guilty of gluttony or overindulgence.

When, for instance, somebody praises salted sardines, he would say: "It’s like the prosciutto". If there is delicious smoked bacon, it is praised in the following way: "It is better than the prosciutto". For a rosy cheeks girl one would say: "She is red like a prosciutto".

Although not good looking from the outside (peppery and mouldy), it is perceived and recognized as an absolute beauty: the Istrian use to compare it with a - violin.

This regal status is deserved thanks to its taste, smell, colour, to the right softness, likewise the freshness and, even though those elements are very refined, the real gourmets are always able to precisely recognize them. The quality and the substance are hidden in the sweetness, softness and the fragrance.

The Istrian prosciutto is the status symbol of the Istrian cuisine. In the past it was also used to pay the doctor, the lawyer, the veterinary, or in conclusion - for every eventuality. It was rarely eaten at everyday house meals, exception made for festivities, weddings and arrival of guests.

But, what are the concealed secrets of such delicacy?
Are those to be searched amongst the ability, the attention, the patience, or are those just the weather conditions? We are going to reveal you the secrets of this great pride of ours...

Secret one
Firstly, in the Istrian hinterland’s households, people used to farm just one pig at a time (not dozens like elsewhere, and in that areas the pigs were never brought to pasture), which reached unusual size and weight. The pig was supposed to feed the whole family with meat, and especially with the lard, all year long.

Believe it or not, that pig had regularly cooked meals based on a mixture of various vegetables, together with chaff or meal flour and every kind of stuff found in the house.

The pumpkin and the beet were planted exclusively for the pig, and various herbs were also collected in springtime. During the last months before the slaughtering, the pig was intensively fattened with maize, to further augment its weight. That is also the reason for the first recognizing mark of the Istrian prosciutto - it is enormously big. And for that reason, it is particularly succulent. The slaughtering of the pig was a day long ritual, a reason for family gathering and for festivity.

Secret two
Special experts were able to shape the pršut, then to salt it just a little bit, to drain it slightly off, and after few days to put in apposite wooden cases, where they were pressed by stone slabs (of proper weight, neither too light nor too heavy) so to let the excessive blood drain off, and the meat turn solid and compact.

Secret three
After one week, depending on the weather conditions, preferably with cold and clear bura (north-east wind), prosciuttos are taken out the case. Then, those would be properly smeared all over with a mixture of bay-salt and pepper, together with pieces of desiccated leaves of rosemary and laurel.
Special attention is paid to the uniformity of compounds throughout the surface of the meat and greater quantities are thrust in most risky places, especially around the bone of the joint sticking out of the meat, where an undesirable guest could easily sneak in (a fly, for instance, to deposit its eggs, which maggots could cause the entire meat to go bad).

Secret four
At that stage the prosciuttos are brought to the loft, with the windows wide open (despite the wintertime), to dry at the bura, which is a north eastern, dry and cold wind, typical for Istrian winters and a blessing for the hams. The drying of the hams at the bura is one amongst the two most important prerequisite for a top product.

If the weather turns to jugo (sirocco or ostro), the second most frequent wind of the Istrian peninsula, warm and humid and coming from the south, that would be a real threat for the meat. In that case, it should be moved into the lišjera, a little hovel in the yard or an opposite room inside the house, where there’s normally a fireplace in the corner (in which previously were prepared meals for the pig).

A little fire would be lighted, so the smoke protects and dries the meat. But, that must be in a mild form, so the prosciutto won’t turn into the smoked one. The Istrian pršut in any case shouldn’t smell of smoke. In case the weather changed again, the hams were hastily returned to the loft.

Secret five
As the spring comes, "his majesty" moves to the cellar the first warm days. The cellar is usually a step or two lower than the yard, has a stone pavement, consequently without insulation, it faces to the north, has a small window or not at all, so it’s lightless.

The temperature maintains a constant, ideal freshness between 14 and 16 Celsius degrees. All the mentioned is crucial for the creation of the noble mould that shall allow a perfect maturing of the ham. The hams are hanged by wooden beams, and in the same cellar are kept the wine barrels.

Here the prosciutto gets the decisive qualitative metamorphosis of taste and smell. Besides the bura wind, this is the most important, if not decisive condition for a delicacy called - Istrian pršut.

Secret six
Furthermore, patience, attention, but also regular controls are needed. Every twenty days the host is going to pierce the pršut with a short wooden stick and carefully smell it. That ritual should be seen; the face of the host expresses all the emotions in discovering the quality of the product.

The host shall immediately stuff that little hole with pepper. Unfortunately, the worst may happen, namely the worminess. To prevent that, some households have net wooden cages so the fly won’t reach the ham. If that adversity is detected in time, it is enough to remove the wormy part, so the pepper and the salt are once more smeared over the healthy meat. Now the problem is just aesthetical, so the ham couldn’t be sold. That better, it’ll be eaten by the inmates.

Secret seven
The right moment!
When to cut or, in other words, to begin eating the pršut?
The later the better; by no means before August, consequently at the end of summer. The prosciutto is cut with a special long thin cutting edge knife, designed exclusively for cutting the prosciutto.

It is cut by long, delicate and careful incisions - like playing a violin. Fete (slices) are first smaller, to become ever bigger, the colour turns ever redder, the smell is more and more intense. Sporadic white threads of fat are just signs of additional quality.

There is a saying in Istria: as longer and bigger the cut and not too thin - is a must. The prosciutto is hand eaten and has to literally melt in the mouth, after two or three bites. Bigger exemplars of the prosciuttos could be cut at the end of the year, for Christmas of New Year’s eve and, if properly kept, also the next summer.

Well, we have just revealed the seven quality secrets of the pršut, a traditional autochthon product. And if those secrets do not seem particularly mysterious to you, you are mistaken...

The simplicity is the secret above all, that is eternally preserved with love, patience, and long lasting experience...

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