Back to Home
Email this Article ARCHIVES Back to newsletter
Jewels in the Italian Gastronomic Crown
By Carole Kotkin
Ham and cheese, being the traditional staples of the most pedestrian of all sandwiches, may seem like humble products. But as I discovered on a recent trip to Northern Italy, they are specialties ranking among the greatest glories of Italian cuisine. The craft that goes into the best of them is every bit as exacting as the expertise that goes into winemaking. Grana Padano cheese and San Danielle prosciutto are two of the most remarkable jewels in the Italian gastronomic crown.
Grana Padano, which has PDO status (product of designated origin), is Italy's top selling cheese, but only 20% of production is exported. “Grana” means grainy, which refers to the somewhat granular texture of the cheese. “Padano” is an adjective describing the Po River Valley in Northern Italy, where the cheese originated in the 12th century as a way for medieval monasteries to preserve excess milk.
The cheese is still made in this region today from the milk of dried alfalfa and fermented corn fed cows, following the strict guidelines of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Grana Padano. Grana Padano is produced throughout the regions of Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto. With an aging of 12 to 18 months, Grana Padano is like the younger sibling of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which may be aged for as long as 24 to 30 months or more. Less expensive than its more famous counterpart, Grana Padano remains very similar in taste and texture to Parmigiano-Reggiano, though it is milder and less complex.
It is clear from a factory visit that the cheese is lovingly made and a great deal of work is involved as well as technical expertise. Although Italy is proud of producing well over 400 types of cheese (even more than France), one type or another of grana cheese is in 99% of Italian homes. Other cheeses get sharper as they age; Grana Padano becomes mellower and its unique texture is at once granular and creamy.
Look for the four-leaf clover stamp that confirms the origin with the province’s code and producer’s registration number. The next identifiers are pin-dot lozenges stamped on the rind accompanied by the words Grana Padano ensuring that it is authentic Grana Padano. Most familiar grated over pasta or folded into risotto or polenta, it is also magnificent broken into bite-sized chunks for eating. Its nutty, buttery flavor is magic with wine, any wine, but most especially a heady Amarone or rich Barolo.
For many years Italian prosciutto was banned for import into the United States because U.S. officials feared the uncooked hams would carry diseases to livestock in this country. Americans made do with domestically produced hams cured prosciutto-style, some of which were good, but none of which could measure up to a fine prosciutto San Daniele.
It is said that San Daniele del Friuli is the town prosciutto built. This picturesque village of 8,000, located in northeastern Italy between the Alps and the Adriatic, is the second largest prosciutto producer in Italy, producing more than 3 million air-cured hams a year. San Daniele’s micro-climate alternates between dryness and humidity which contributes to the prosciutto’s salty-sweet flavor and almost creamy texture. Ask any local “Sandanielese” about the secrets to making this great ham and he/she will reply, “Italian pork, the right amount of sea salt, time and San Daniele air; that’s all there is to it.” The San Daniele Consortio del Prosciutto di San Daniele maintains quality and uniformity through a rigorously enforced breeding and production process. It is a process that, although fully modernized and mechanized, has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. All the pigs destined for San Daniele Prosciutto, which has the D.O.P. certification, are raised and slaughtered in this region.
The Italian government protects the region by banning any industries with a high pollution risk. Hams sold in Europe are aged 12 to 13 months; those destined for the United States are aged 15 months. USDA authorities inspect the farms, slaughterhouses and production facilities twice a year to guarantee the prosciutto is safe for US consumption. When the pig is slaughtered, the thighs are shipped to a production plant where they’re hand-massaged with sea salt, allowed to rest for three months, washed and salted again and finally hung to air-dry and cure, making them safe to eat without cooking.
Everyone in San Daniele eats prosciutto sliced paper thin for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They eat it in pasta and on pasta, in omelets and layer it in sandwiches. Restaurants serve prosciutto in overlapping folded-over slices with bread or bread sticks as an appetizer. Its sweet-salty flavors play off fruit beautifully. Melon slices wrapped with prosciutto make a classic appetizer, but proscuitto is also wonderful with figs, pears, and even dates. The layer of creamy white fat that surrounds the pink, lean meat contributes flavor and texture to the experience.
For centuries, every year at the end of June, the people of San Daniele celebrate the inseparable link between the terroir and its ham, in a festival, Aria di Festa, that turns San Daniele into a prosciutto tasting room of international renown.
Carole Kotkin is co-host of Food & Wine Talk, WDNA 88.9 FM; co-author MMMMiami—Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks Everywhere; food editor of Wine News magazine; and manager of The Cooking School at The Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo.