For most Americans, the world of Italian prosciutti has been limited to the dry-cured hams from the Parma and San Daniele del Friuli areas, even though Italy has at least seven varieties protected by law because of their specific terroir, unique production methods and, of course, sublime piggy flavor.
This spring, however, a select few deli counters made room for one more Italian import: Prosciutto Toscano, a cured ham decidedly different from the two that dominate the U.S. market. Darker in color and funkier in flavor, this Tuscan prosciutto has been described in terms that make the ham sound as if it’s afflicted with histrionic personality disorder: It has a “jarring intensity,” notes Saveur. It has a “strong personality,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Its flavor compares to that of a “high-quality cooked fresh ham,” Forbes opines.
“It’s cured not only with salt, but spices,” says Jason Miller, corporate chef with Balducci’s, which just started selling the Tuscan hams at its six locations. (Wegmans is hoping to carry the prosciutto, too, but that probably won’t happen until the third quarter, says a spokeswoman.)
As he led a tasting at the Balducci’s in Bethesda, Miller explained that, unlike with Parma or San Daniele prosciutto, the herbs, aromatics and berries common to the region, such as garlic, rosemary and juniper myrtle, are included in the Tuscan hams’ cure.
“You can taste that, definitely, in the ham,” Miller says. “It’s a little bit more robust, a little bit more rustic.”
Personally, I wouldn’t say I that definitely taste those ingredients, but I would say this about prosciutto Toscano: The meat seems to absorb some chemical essence from those herbs and aromatics, transforming a salty-and-delicate ribbon of ham into something earthier and somehow meatier than the original shank. There’s also the tiniest background note of spice, a pleasant counterbalance to the sweetness and sodium-heavy flesh.
Balducci’s almost didn’t get its hands on the prosciutto in time for the chain’s Tuscan promotion, which launched this month and continues through mid-May at the stores. The hams apparently were held in quarantine while the Food and Drug Administration conducted routine tests.
“You’re sweating bullets, like anytime in this business, when [the product] hits the U.S.,” says John Coleman, chief forager and wine and cheese merchant for Balducci’s. “The FDA puts it on hold, and you’re like, ‘Oh, but our promotion starts in a week!’ It just got here in time.”
The Parmacotto Group, a Parma-based company, spent nearly four years splitting off part of its San Gimignano plant in Tuscany to use exclusively for U.S. production, notes spokesman Antonio Corsano. “It was a long process between the Italian Health Department Institute and USDA visits at our plant,” Corsano writes in an e-mail.
To take advantage of this new taste in Italian prosciutto, Balducci’s decided to go, well, whole hog on Tuscany. Last year the gourmet chain sent several buyers to the region to bring back a host of Tuscan products: olive oils, cheeses, dry pastas, coffee, chocolate, risotto rice and wine. Coleman says some have never before been available in the States.
Among those are a number of Busti Family cheeses, such as Pecorino Il Tartufo, infused with white truffles from San Miniato, not Piedmont, $24.99 a pound; organic Pecorino Rosso Volterrano, a semi-soft cheese washed with tomato paste, $21.99 a pound; and organic Le Balze Pecorino, a raw-milk cheese aged for more than 60 days and washed with olive oil and artichokes, $22.99 a pound.
“There’s not a lot of exporting of true Tuscan cheeses,” Coleman says. “Just like in France, there are people who make cheese . . . then they send the cheese to someone who will age it and export it.”
Balducci’s is also selling a Franci Frantoio extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany, a medium-bodied and boldly peppery oil that was pressed during the 2012 season. A half-liter bottle will cost you $15.99, which might sound steep for the quantity. But remember: The bottle carries the Protected Geographical Indication, or PGI, stamp, meaning the oil is inextricably tied to the terroir of Tuscany and is at least partially manufactured there.
Which is exactly the kind of Tuscan product Balducci’s was hunting for.
“We were looking for something that just has a classic, intense flavor so that you know it’s authentic,” Coleman says. “It’s from the region. It speaks of the terroir.”