The mold had slowly crept in, its Mongolian olive green fur jacketing the leg like a dyed shearling coat from another era. Patches of an earthy brown funk also freckled the skin, but none was the dreaded black mold seen in years’ prior. Black mold often destroys the flesh. We were, after all, only after its desiccation.
The word Prosciutto hails from the Latin word perexsuctum, meaning to extract all of the juices. In Italian, the word is prosciugato, or dried thoroughly, which, in a nutshell, is the essence of cured meat: removing all of the moisture through a salting and aging process.
Not to imply that creating a sublime cured ham is easy. It’s not. My tears have stained many a ham made inedible by a heavy-handed salting or creepy unnamed molds, black and otherwise. It’s not pretty and the waste of meat makes me grimace.
I’ve been shit outta luck making prosciutto.
On a couple of cold, deeply gray days last winter, two of us butchered a 300-pound Berkshire pig from a neighboring farm, liberating the huge hind legs for curing. Weighing in at 28 pounds each, we cleaned the spindly legs and their thick haunches, and coated them with a mixture of spices, salt, and InstaCure Pink Salt #2. Curing salts inhibit the fungus and bacteria that spoil meat. Also called Prague Powder and Tinted Cure, curing salt is dyed neon pink to camouflage it with the coloring of meat – and more importantly, so a busy cook cannot confuse the toxic curing salt with sea or kosher salt. Pink salt is used in miniscule amounts for dry or semi-dry fermented curing, eliminating the need for refrigeration, cooking or smoking. Its toxic component, sodium nitrate (6.25%) is slowly fermented while aging and curing the meat, gradually breaking down into sodium nitrite, and then into nitric oxide, which dissipates almost completely by the time the dry-cured meat is ready to be eaten; in the case of a prosciutto, 12-16 months, depending upon the size of the haunch and the environment in which it’s aged.
Every day for eight weeks, I bled the leg of its moisture by massaging into it the excess salts and spices, paying careful attention to cover any exposed flesh where bacteria can root. Semi-religiously I drained the pooling liquids, which were slowly released each day from the leg, now propped up on a crudely rigged wooden platform inside a large hotel pan resting on the basement’s frigid, cement floor. I now understood why most Nonnas had cold, course hands.
The word ‘ham’ is derived from the Old English hom or hamm, meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, its Germanic base meaning ‘crooked’. It wasn’t until the 15th century that it came to refer to the leg of an animal. Salt curing foods, however, dates to ancient times. In North Africa, famished settlers salted spring’s swarms of crickets, while the ancient Greeks salted their daily catch, drying it in the sun. The Belgians were celebrated for their beautifully fattened hogs, which provided salt cured meats to the Roman people and their conquering armies.
The Chinese were the first to domesticate pigs for food in 4900 B.C., while the Europeans didn’t catch onto the wonders of pork until 1500 B.C. In 160 B.C., Cato the Elder wrote of ‘salting the hams’ in his great work De Agri Cultura, describing an established practice in Western Europe under the Gauls in the 5th century B.C. While the wealthy could afford to buy fresh meat everyday, the ability to preserve this precious source of nutrition, often obtained through hunting or husbandry, meant survival for most. Ironically, nowadays cured meat platters are de rigueur in better restaurants and dining rooms around the world, commanding big dollars for prized hams sliced paper-thin.
In Spain, there are four main categories for cured hams, noting the breed of pig, its food source, the part of the animal utilized for the ham, and the manner in which it’s cured. In Italy, there are seven major types of prosciutti, each boasting their own Protected Designation of Origin certification, and using only sea salt to cure the legs. While Parma and San Daniele are the most recognized, the hams of Toscano and Modena are equally remarkable. Cured hams are most often made from the hind legs of a pig or wild boar, but can also be made from other animals, such as lamb (prosciutto d’agnello) or goat (violino di capra).
After the majority of liquid had drained from the leg, it was washed several times and hung from a steel meat hook in a cool, dark and almost well ventilated part of the cellar. I tried desperately to put out of my mind thoughts of ravaging molds, the too-warm days, the failures of years past. Wandering to the basement over the course of the next year to trim drying bunches of herbs for soups and stews, or snip green buds from resinous stalks for smoking, I’d be immediately transfixed by the profound aromas of curing meat: dark, dank and earthy, with the not unpleasant fragrance of forest floor and barnyard. I spent days tracking down a ham tester, finally locating one at a knife shop in Barcelona. Used by experts and judges in Europe to test the quality and soundness of ham, this long thin needle is made from either a horse’s shinbone or pig’s femur bone. It’s inserted quickly into the ham near the base and upon its removal, is sniffed for any off-odors. As bone retains aroma, one can assess the meat buried deep beneath the hardened skin and layers of furry mold.
The perfume from the ham tester smelled of pork, clean and cured.
Years of failure, however, tempered my excitement.
I cut the leg down from the meat hook, gave it a good saltwater scrub to remove the colorful patches of mold, and poised it on a contraption made specifically for slicing a cured leg of ham, its full hoof jutting into the air in a macabre salute. Hedging my bets against spoiled meat, I set the table with a long-simmered pot of beans made with bacon fat, our summer tomatoes, and a bottle of slightly cooked Italian wine purchased naively from an auction. A breadboard was set with hearty Alpine winter cheeses, mustards, and a crusty loaf of bread with sesame seeds. Sharpening a razor-thin slicing knife, I said a silent prayer to the god of charcouterie that this be the year we cut into a very fine ham.