One of the most important products that characterises the Friuli region is the ‘prosciutto’ ham. During the last decade the most well known brand, throughout the whole of Italy, has become the prosciutto made at San Daniele (although the smoked ham from Sauris, a small town situated in the Carnia region at 1.200 meters – 3,500 feet approx - above sea level, is also much appreciated). The techniques of butchering and elaboration are not much different from those relative to the making of other prosciutto hams, but one must mention that the salting process is ‘a secco’ or dry. This means that the salt is combined with spices and aromatic herbs and then applied to the meat various times during the time span of a month. The real difference and particularity is the smoking process which gives the prosciutto its unmistakable aroma and taste. After the initial seasoning the prosciutto hams are placed in appropriate smoking facilities for 2 - 3 days where they are smoked above slowly burning beech wood fires that are kept alight in normal fireplaces. The prosciutto is then left to season for 12 months and finally, after various ritual quality controls, is ready for sale. The lean part of the prosciutto must be of red colour with pinkish nuances and the fatty part must be of a candid white colour. The tastiness is characterised by a slightly smoked flavour.
The Prosciutto from San Daniele is considered the most excellent one of this region.
It was the Celts, ancient habitants of Friuli before the settlement of the Romans, who discovered the use of salt in conserving pork meat and who experimented with the seasoning of meats. This, almost by chance, was in accordance with the specific natural and climatic environment of the San Daniele area. The Celts, conscious of the high quality of their food product, assigned the pig’s leg (thigh) to being the ‘dish of the hero’ or ‘dish of the king’. This special dish was, therefore, thought worthy to be eaten by the highest ranking people.
The fame of the prosciutto products soon spread quickly throughout the entire land and, during the few invasions San Daniele experienced during the course of centuries, one common factor linked the victorious armies: the war booty from this region always contained large quantities of prosciutto. The delicate flavour and fragrant aroma was much appreciated among the elite party reunited in the Council of Trento, to whom were sent, on the back of a mule, no less than ‘30 pairs’ of prosciutto. The Hungarian Royalties also wanted to be provided with this speciality and therefore had sanitary certificates made out by the veterinaries of the ‘Serene Venetian Republic’ which authorised the transportation of such across the border.
A chronicle of the time states that in 1797 General Bernadotte, Napoleon’s Consul in Friuli, who was encamped at the city gates of Udine to supply food to the troops, ordered a sacking which resulted in ‘...six prosciutti, fresh cheese, Refresco and Pioliti wines..’’. The six prosciutto hams certainly came from San Daniele where the art of salting and seasoning the pig’s leg had the best conditions due to the climate of the territory.
In more recent times, Gabiele D’Annunzio was known to appreciate the San Daniele prosciutto; he liked it so much he desired to always have an ample supply in his pantry at Vittoriale where he lived.
The founding of the ‘prosciuttifici’ (prosciutto producers) dates back to the nineteen twenties, when the first artisan producers started giving their home cellars a new role and thus turned these into proper prosciutto production units, even if small in size.
The elaboration of pork meat was supervised by the ‘purctar’(deriving from ‘purcit’ which is the name used for swine in Friuli). With the increasing request for prosciutto, pork meat originating from other regions was also used, this arrived via the neighbouring region of Lombardia.
It was during the beginning of the nineteen fifties that the industrialisation of prosciutto making was initiated, and this attracted the first investors who came from other cities. In 1961, thanks to a group of producers, the ‘Consortium of the San Daniele Prosciutto’ was founded to establish production criteria and to protect the name of this specific prosciutto. The region’s production continued to expand and opened to the national market at the end of the nineteen sixties, thanks to the effort of businesses today nationally known.
In 1970 a state law was established to define the production process and establish a quality control in order to protect the use of the brand name. This law was substituted by another approved in 1990 which is even more strict and also conforms to European Law. Therefore in 1996 the San Daniele Prosciutto trademark was registered as a ‘Protected Denomination of Origin’ food (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). This prestigious distinction was achieved thanks to the unceasing effort of the Consortium, of which all prosciutto producers are members, and which they have seen gain importance and function over the years.
The pigs suitable for the preparation of the San Daniele prosciutto must originate from one of the 11 authorised northern or central regions of Italy (from Piemonte to Molise) and must also be butchered there. The use of pig legs (thighs) from sows is strictly forbidden. The average medium weight must not be less than 160 Kg (400 lbs) and the pig must not be butchered prior to the 9 months of age. This is done in order to avoid a ‘pushed’ weight excess which would cause an excessive gain of fat.
The rearing of the animal must be determined by a precise and balanced diet which comprises a certain amount of selected food products, amongst which cereals being the most important. The breeders must mark the animals by means of a tattoo indicating the month of birth, the breeder’s identification code and the province of origin. The adult animal must be certified before butchering.
Once the animal has been butchered, the legs must be refrigerated and elaborated within 5 days of having been cut. The weight of each leg must not be less than 11 Kg (28 lbs) and must have precise characteristics such as: no excess intra-muscular fat, and the thickness of the covering fat layer should not be less than 1,5 cm (1/2”), suitable colouring and correct consistency of the meat, the integrity of the pig’s leg including the pig’s foot. The last criteria, apart from being an element of ancient tradition, is an important drainage factor as this permits the drainage of humidity even from the most difficult meat portions once hung. The pigs’ legs are sent to the ‘prosciuttifici’ where they undergo further selection, those finally pre-selected are fire-branded with a seal that indicates the date of initial elaboration, the code PP and the butcher’s identification number.
The pig’s legs are then salted, pressed, and dried in a uniform way. This reduces the meat’s thickness resulting in an even distribution of the meat’s fat and lean parts thus improving the internal and external seasoning process. The pressing, together with the conservation of the pig’s foot , is one of the typical characteristics of the San Daniele prosciutto. A storage period in a cool environment follows, both to enrich the meat’s flavour and to enable the removal of the salty outer layer. After the drying process the seasoning takes place; this is done in large rooms with long window slits on the north-south side of the building in order to guarantee correct ventilation and the airing of the prosciuttos, which are hung vertically from the pig’s foot on iron hooks. The length of seasoning depends mainly on the individual meat piece, but the minimum time span foreseen is 13 months. Then a further quality control takes place to determine the balance between water, salt and proteins. Finally the prosciutto is marked with a firebrand in the shape of a prosciutto ham containing the abbreviation ‘SD’ and circled by the writing ‘Prosciutto di San Daniele’ and the producer’s identification number.