In the tradition of the Istrian gastronomy the prosciutto (pršut) is the top and the measure for all the exquisiteness. It is cut by long, delicate and careful incisions, so a joke says – like playing a violin. Fete or cuts of prosciutto are first smaller, to become ever bigger, the colour turns ever redder, the smell is more and more intense. There is a usage in Istria: as much longer and bigger cut, and not too thin is a must.
Istrian prosciutto is highly regarded by gourmands worldwide due in large part to our strict adherence to a long tradition of respectful production – from the careful way pigs are raised, to the elaborate treatment of the meat, to its curing with a unique blend of spices that give the ham its distinctive fragrance. Since Istrian prosciutto is produced without nitrites, nitrates or smoke, it is considered one of the most healthful cured meats in all of the Mediterranean.
Methods for removing the skin, using the ”kasela” (wooden form), creating a rub with salt, pepper, laurel, rosemary and sometimes garlic, and drying the ham in the bura (cold, north-eastern wind) remain closely guarded secrets unique to each farmer. Normally dried for one year, slices of young Istrian ham are heated in olive oil and finished with a splash of malvasia. At Easter, part of the shoulder-joint or ‘’špaleta’’ is boiled while the other part is slowly roasted on a rotisserie. In Istrian tradition, one meal each day typically includes pork.
When, for instance, somebody praises salted sardines, he would say: ‘’It’s like the prosciutto. If there is a 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 moldy), 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, color, 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 ham is a real 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.
In the istrian inner land’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 ham – 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.
Special experts were able to shape the ham, then to salt it just a little bit, to drain it slightly off, and after few days to put in apposite wooden cases, where the hams 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.After one week, depending on the weather conditions, preferably with bura (north-east wind), cold and clear, the hams would be 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 would be paid to the uniformity of compounds throughout the surface of the ham, and greater quantities would be 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).
At that stage the hams 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 should ‘’turn’’ to jugo, (sirocco or ostro) the second most frequent wind of our peninsula, warm and humid, coming from the south, that would be a real threat for the hams. In that case, the hams would be moved into the lišjera, a little hovel in the yard or an apposite 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 hams. But, that must be in a mild form, so the hams won’t turn into – smoked ham. The istrian hams in any case shouldn’t smell of smoke. In case the weather changed again, the hams were hastily returned to the loft.
As the spring comes, likewise the first warm days, his majesty moves to the cellar. The cellar is normally 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 mold 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 hams get the decisive qualitative metamorphosis of taste and smell. Besides the bura, this is the most important, if not decisive condition for a delicacy called – istrian ham.
Furthermore, patience, attention, but also regular controls are needed. Every twenty days the host is going to pierce the ham 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.
The right moment. When to cut or, in other words, to begin eating the ham? The later the better; by no means before august, consequently at the end of summer. The ham is cut a means of a special long thin cutting edge knife, designed exclusively for cutting the ham.
It is cut by long, delicate and careful incisions, so a joke says – like playing a violin. Fete or cuts of ham, are first smaller, to become ever bigger, the color turns ever redder, the smell is more and more intense. Sporadic white threads of fat are just signs of additional quality. There is a usage in Istria: as much longer and bigger cut, and not too thin is a must. It is hand eaten and has to literally melt in the mouth, right after two or three bites. Bigger exemplars of ham could be cut at the end of the year, for Christmas of New Year’s eve and, if properly kept, also the next summer.