A confused, pseudo-sexual investigation into prosciutto, the Cadillac of dead animals.
You pig eaters should be ashamed of yourselves. Consuming these beautiful, intelligent beings is the ultimate act of indulgence, of cruelty, an act that borders on the profane, the cannibalistic, on the transcendently delicious and sustainable.
To eat a pig is to sin in the eyes of the God, according a quarter of the world’s population (myself included). I couldn’t possibly explain to you why this is, but neither can Marvin Harris, despite the lengths he goes to investigate this in his fascinating essay, “The Abominable Pig”. Nevertheless, a rule is a rule, and traditions are the foundation of a society.
More, to dress a pig carcass with one’s bare hands, to massage salt into its skin, is as if to caress the cheek of a newly shaved, recently slaughtered lover. If the fondling of a fresh, uncut chiccarón verges on the homicidal, it’s no wonder: the pig is our dear, intimate friend, and has been long before we could afford to equate it with shame at all.
Myths and contradictions abound with regard to the domestic history of this unspeakably sexy beast. Giulio Cesare Croce’s La vera historia della piacevolissima festa della porchetta (The True Story of the Extremely Delightful Feast of the Roast Pork) details a celebration on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1584 in Bologna (a city famously nicknamed “La grassa”, or “The Fat”) wherein all citizens — even the most destitute — would gather in Piazza Maggiore to evade their persistent hunger for one to and enjoy a bit of porchetta amongst the upper classes.
In truth, the pig is the humblest of animals, neither the exotic game that was a symbol of power at the banquet tables of the aristocracy during the High Middle Ages, nor the more delicate fowl that the noble chivalry opted for in subsequent years to leave their warlike ways behind them. Capable of consuming almost anything, and living nearly anywhere, the pig furnishes us with the most democratic of meats.
Pork is also relatively sustainable: it converts 35% of energy from its feed into muscle and fat, compared to only 6.5% in the case of cattle, and the concept of “going whole hog” (or better, “totus porcus” in Dog — as opposed to Pig — Latin) exists because pig’s blood, pig’s feet, and trotters are not only delicious, but considered delicious throughout the world and across classes.
Nevertheless, this article is not about sustainability, and it’s not about recalibrating socioeconomic disparities. Instead, we here claim the leg of this poor animal not with the purehearted charity of Fra Ginepro, who only procured the meat at the dying request of a beggar in the Little Flowers of St. Francis. Indeed, neither San Francesco nor my Rabbi would be so pleased by my consumption of this meat, particularly on this, the evening of the Shabbat. Rather, this is about sharing our findings to you, the reader, after having tasted some of the most expensive, least sustainable, least healthy, most commercially available meat products on earth, and doing so in the most 2021-appropriate way possible: via videoconference.
Tonight, from Florence to Berlin, six poor little piggies donate their leg shavings, senza consenso, to three friends in the interest of your pseudo-education. What are these meats, you ask? Well, some of the greats:
- A generic culatello (the so-called “Quintessence” of the prosciutto, to cite Bernardo Bertolucci);
- a Schwarzwälder Schinken IGP (a raw, smoked Black Forest ham);
- a prosciutto from the Chianti region (automatically Fede’s favorite as it is Tuscan, and so is he);
- Prosciutto di Parma, and
- Prosciutto San Daniele (each amongst the first 158 items so culturally valuable to Europe as to be declared DOP, or Protected Designation of Origin, on the first day that measure was established);
- another Prosciutto San Daniele, from a different producer and exported to Germany;
This experiment is greeted immediately by failure. Having done my share of Googling, I’m determined to accompany my hams with unsalted, whole grain bread and a Lambrusco, one of the few noteworthy wines to come from Parma. Fede chastises me via text message as I’m in the checkout line: “Lambrusco is cheap trash for grandpas and students. A chianti would be better, along with a nice, salty schiacciata to balance out the sweetness of the Prosciutto di Parma.” What a motherfucking Tuscan.
Abandoning my place in line, I settle instead for a volcanic prosecco and a Tuscan vin novello in the interest of defying his instructions. And the schiacciata, but only because I like it and not because he told me to get some, you hear me?
Some crucial notes before we begin. Firstly, all of the meats here are salumi, from the Latin salumen, effectively meaning “salted things.” One salame (or several salami) can be considered both an example of salume (or salumi), but also of insaccati, which are types of salumi cured in sacs, often the intestine of the same pathetic beast. Mortadella, for example, the most grassa of grasse things from La grassa, is an insaccato. Prosciutto, typically, is not, except for Exhibit #1, the culatello.
Yes, culo means ass. Yes, –ello is can be either diminutive (a small fountain, or fontana, is a fontanella, for example) or attenuative (instead of directly calling someone poor, povero, you might soften the blow by calling them poverino or poverello). Either way, it’s a dirty, vulgar word, this culatello, and that’s appropriate enough, given that it is, in essence, an ass stuffed in an asshole. Nevertheless, though made from pigs reared in the Parma region (a proper culatello comes from the, uh, hamlet of Zibello), it’s a cured world apart from the others even in process, given that it is deboned, and is cured with not only sea salt, but also garlic, pepper, and white wine: unthinkable additives to a traditional prosciutto.
Our culatello, though more than twice the cost of the other options listed here, is decidedly not the prized Culatello di Zibello. Pre-sliced and overexposed to the elements, it comes with salt crystals collected on the surface; the meat, from the leanest part of the leg, is dry and sinewy. It is so salty that if eaten with the schiacciata I might go into anaphylactic shock, and I’m inclined to throw the rest of the prosciutto in the trash, so disappointed by this so-called “king.” It not only goes with the prosecco, it requires it, and serves as a reminder that with all things, it’s not so much the make but the maker.
The Schwarzwälder Schinken PGI (a step below Italy’s DOP, but still a regional specialty protected by the EU) is what is to be expected for a meat cured in potpourri of spices like juniper, coriander and pepper, and then pinewood-smoked. Fede notes that it tastes like a forest fire and absolutely nothing else. Why do they mask the flavor of a perfectly good pig like this? Presumably Southern Germany has shitty pigs, or insecure farmers, or both.
The Chianti is the cheapest horse in our race, and I’m afraid to admit to my Tuscan friend that it’s succulent as shit and the sweetest of all, almost bubble gum-fruity, suited perfectly for the goddamned schiacciata. Truthfully, we foreigners may mock Italians for being so regional with their food, but then you find things like this that just fit together like two puzzle pieces. My only complaint is that the ham, tender as she is, is impossible to peel apart in whole strips.
As for the issue of make vs. maker, the Prosciutto di Parma, the most famous of all our samples and certainly the oldest, is sold under one brand name but sourced from around 150 different farms within a few miles of the city (by comparison, San Daniele boasts only 28). For this reason, the characteristics of the stuff can vary slightly depending on both the supplier and the cut: mine, freshly sliced into small polygons from a recently tapped leg at the market, is blood-red, relatively lean, and a bit too salty; the pre-cut German export is pale, oblong, bland and greasy. In neither case do we get a whiff of anything but flesh: they’re delicious, no doubt, but straightforward.
The San Daniele is by far the best of this group. That’s all, there’s just no question. Despite being pre-sliced, commercial as can be, and right in the middle in terms of cost (cheaper than the Prosciutto di Parma and culatello, and twice the cost of the Chianti and the Schinken). Truthfully, it is the only one of these options to boast the complexity and richness in flavor that one finds in a world-beating Jamón ibérico or a knife-cut leg from a small, traditional farm. Is it because of the smaller production size? Is it because, prior to aging, they press the leg to push out any extra liquid and concentrate the flavor? Is it because I’ve been brainwashed by all of this damned propaganda?
But no. With a sniff, you can differentiate between the band of fat, which smells of acorn, and the deep red flesh, which is earthy and full of butt stank (the good kind). The ham, though a bit stringy, melts in your fucking mouth, and its flavor evolves as it swishes around your tongue: nutty, honey-sweet, marine, creamy, mineral, and mammalian (whatever that is). Who knows! By now I’m nearly done with the schiacciata, and I’ve almost cut off my finger in slicing the whole wheat bread which, saltless as it is, merges so nicely with this stuff. I’m sure toilet paper would as well, honestly.
I’m also all but done with the prosecco. An entire bottle. I jump ship from the white glera to the red novello, a federal crime in some circles, just in the interest of tasting the whole gamut and definitely not because I’m a drunkard in the midst of a pandemic. Believe it or not, my gums now swollen with pig salt, the San Daniele goes well with the surprisingly heavy, bright, yeasty red. Sign me up for whatever promotional budgets you have, Saint Daniel, ‘cause I’m with you! You are looking down on me from heaven, having left earth with your marvelous ham, and this guilt-addled Jew thanks you for it.
The next day, all day, my pores reek of cured meat. My fingers are slick with fat, an unsettling sensation that no quantity of soap will cut, and my ears seem to be ringing. It is said that one serving of prosciutto is about two slices: I reckon I’d consumed around six servings that night, totalling to over 8,000 milligrams of sodium in one sitting. If that’s not enough, I still have perhaps half a beautiful, (formerly) intelligent piglet drying out in my fridge, and I can’t stand the sight or smell of it anymore, let alone the imagery of abject cruelty it conjures, images which I shall never erase from my brain.
The truth is, it would be infinitely better for our hearts, our bodies, our souls, our environment, and doubtlessly our pigs — who never asked, it goes without saying, to be born into this cruel cycle from their mud to my feces — if we simply abstained from this, if we never touched another slice of dead pig leg ever again.
So why do we do it? I would argue, setting aside the famished families of the 13th century who had to survive for a week off of a tiny strip of lardo, that we are greedy, selfish motherfuckers, and that prosciutto is just that good. Neither with soy protein nor with leghaemoglobin, there is no duplicating that feeling you get when tasting Prosciutto San Daniele for the first time, no matter when any vegetarian tells you.
That this marvelous, relatively harmless, exceedingly affable creature happens to render so wondrously in my mouth is, I might argue, something to take up with God and not me. Now if you need me, I’ll be in hell, puking my brains out.
1. This is extremely hasty, unscientific math, derived from various Pew polls from 2011 to 2015 which estimate 1.8 billion Muslims (already 24% of our population), 36 million members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, 14.7 million Jews, and 3 million members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Internal estimates from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church also adds 21.4 million abstinents. This does not include vegetarian Buddhists or Hindus; I’m certainly missing others.
2. Harris cites Leviticus 11:1 (“Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven footed and chews the cud among animals, you may eat.”) as explanation for the stigma, but remains unconvinced.
3. Though it appears the tradition dates back to 1294, and continued until Napoleon stormed the city in 1796, when the little stinker successfully outlawed all future celebrations.
4. “Dog Latin” is an imitative version of the language that “Latinizes” foreign words. In Classical Latin, “pork” might be suilla or porcina, and yet “totus porcus” remains in use.
5. Florentines like calling it schiacciata. The Sienese call it ciaccino. Ligurians call it focaccia, or fügassa in dialect. Other than the Venetian fugassa, which is an entirely different thing altogether, I defy anyone to tell me what the damn difference is between any of these, let alone the Roman pizza bianca! Feudalists, all.
6. Volcanic in that the Euganean Hills between Venice and Padova are of prehistoric volcanic origin. By the way, prosecco is the most popular Italian wine in the world and yet who’s ever heard of the grape they make it with.Glera? Certainly not I.
7. Basically a Beaujolais, this is a new harvest wine that’s force-fermented with CO2 and is only available from Halloween to New Year’s. It’s weird.
8. In a letter to his friend, the famous poet/libertine/proto-Fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio pulls a bit of double entendre, joking that he is an “extremely lustful lover of culatello (is that one ‘t’ or two?).”
9. Technically it’s the upper thigh stuffed in the intestine, but close enough.
10. The consortium claims that Hannibal sang its praises after having “liberated” Parma in 217 B.C.
11. For those interested in avoiding cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, and basically every other disease, the daily recommendation of sodium from the CDC is 2,300mg; in Italy, it is 1,500.