Curing and salting ham is an ancient art and has been used for centuries to preserve fresh meat. But not all hams are created equal: there are differences in the breed of pig used, the curing methods and maturation periods. Here are five of the best.
Jambon de Bayonne
The area surrounding the French city of Bayonne in southeast France has a tradition of curing ham dating back centuries. According to regulations founded on ancient practices, pork hind legs are rubbed in a thick layer of salt from the Adour Basin. The ham is then aged nine to twelve months by hanging it in a resting chamber, a so-called souillarde, at low temperature that emulates winter conditions. The result is renowned for its taste and tender texture.
Jamón Ibérico, also called Jamón Pata Negra or Pata Negra, is a raw ham from the Extremadura region in Spain. It is produced from semi-wild pigs of the Iberica breed which feast solely on acorns and wild herbs. They are free-roaming and get much exercise, giving the final product a delicious and tender texture. As the salt is only sparsely used, one in five ham spoils during the 12-to 28-month ageing process, which makes it even more precious.
Culatello di Zibello
Zibello is a beautiful small town near Parma in northern Italy. The artisanal production process of a Culatello di Zibello originated in the 15th century and is now subject to strict quality criteria. Nera Parmigiana pigs are a small breed that is fed on corn, chestnuts and acorns. Once the ham is de-boned, it is smothered in garlic, herbs and local red wine. During ageing, the ham develops a unique flavour through noble rot forming on the outer skin. An absolute Italian classic.
This traditionally cured dried ham originated from the stunning coastal stretch of land that forms Istria in Croatia. After rubbing the meat in coarse salt, pepper, garlic and various herbs, the wind does all the drying needed before starting the ageing process. The meat is rich, ruby in colour and has a slightly sweet taste with a melt in the mouth texture. Perfect as a starter with artisanal bread and olives.
Prosciutto di San Daniele DOP
The picturesque town of San Daniele in the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia lies in the foothills of the Dolomites. Large White, Landrace and Duroc breeds of pigs enjoy a healthy diet based on vegetables and cereals. Their legs are rubbed in pure sea salt and coated with a mixture of flour, lard, salt and pepper, resulting in a particularly sweet and enticing piece of ham, considered finer than its famous cousin Parma ham.