The art of preserving pork was firmly established in the Tuscany region by the Middle Ages. This can be seen from the number of laws governing the slaughter of pigs and the preservation of pork already in place at the time of Charlemagne.
Prosciutto Toscano comes from an old tradition of Tuscan farmers, who would slaughter a pig fattened for a year during the winter, to make sausages for family consumption. This procedure developed into a genuine festival.
In around the 15th century, at the time of the Medici, the production of Tuscan Prosciutto became regulated, with restrictions on pig farming (to be carried out on established sites, arranged by the Grascia officers), slaughtering, and the production and sale of dried meat, for which authorisation was required, under pain of penalty.
There were also “licenses” for exporting the product, which could be sold or exchanged.
Tuscan pig farming, once based on the rearing of piglets for fattening elsewhere, converted to a closed cycle system due to the great demand created by the growing number of processing centres in the region.
A shift therefore occurred from strictly family-based production to larger farms and artisanal and small industrial processing centres, which followed the time-honoured methods and preserved the particular characteristics of the product.
The farms were distributed almost throughout the entire region, but with a higher concentration in the major grain production areas, such as Val di Chiana, Casentino, Mugello, the upper and lower Arno Valley, Chianti, Val d’Elsa, Val d’Era, Val d’Orcia and Maremma, and as a consequence, the processing centres also developed in these areas.
In order to preserve this cultural and culinary heritage, the producers established production rules. The Tuscan Prosciutto Consortium was established for this purpose in 1990, and now includes 23 companies from the region. The product was then granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) recognition by the European Union.
The current production of Prosciutto Toscano PDO is approximately 350,000 hams/year, ranking third nationally in terms of quantity.
Prosciutto Toscano PDO involves 23 associated companies distributed throughout the area, all cut from the same cloth, but each with its own special formula and recipe. The mixtures of herbs used during salting are jealously handed down from father to son, and the times of the various phases are a carefully preserved heritage for producing Prosciutto Toscano PDO.
Tradition, quality raw materials, monitoring of the entire production process and a consortium that promotes and protects the designation are some of the factors that ensure high standards of quality. The result is a unique product with an unmistakable taste that captures the essence of the rich, fertile land of Tuscany.
The Prosciutto Toscano PDO production process begins with the selection of pork legs that meet the production rule requirements and have the right characteristics to ensure the attainment of a high quality product. These are then marked with a metal seal.
The next step is trimming, by which the prosciutto is given its characteristic rounded shape. Part of the fat and the rind are removed during this process, and the characteristic “V” cut is made, which facilitates the penetration of the salt and other seasoning.
This is followed by salting, with a dry process that includes the use of salt, pepper, bay leaves, rosemary, juniper berries, garlic, and other herbs typical of the local area. No additives or preservatives are permitted.
After about 3-4 weeks of salting, the leg enters the pre-curing phase, during which the prosciutto undergoes gradual dehydration as the meat slowly and gradually matures.
About six months after salting, the prosciuttos are all inspected before passing to the smearing stage. The paste used for this is a mixture of ground pork lard with added wheat or rice flour, salt and pepper. The muscle tissue in the legs is smeared to protect it from excessive dehydration and preserve its tenderness, while allowing further moisture loss.
The true curing process now begins. The hams are kept in an environment with ideal temperature and humidity conditions, where they slowly mature and develop all the particular aromas and flavours that distinguish Tuscan Prosciutto PDO.
When curing is complete, the olfactory characteristics of the product are tested by inserting a needle-shaped horse bone in various parts of the meat. Only those hams considered suitable are branded with the distinctive Tuscan Prosciutto PDO marking, which is the guarantee of their quality.
The Local Area
The Tuscany area is large and has great variation. It rises elegantly from the beaches of Versilia, Livorno and Monte Argentario to the crown of the Apuan Alps, which then soften into the Apennines, where we find the Garfagnana, Mugello and the Pratomagno range, before reaching the other imposing Apuan peaks.
In between, the hills offer vineyards, olive groves and landscapes famous throughout the world. The pig enjoys a place of honour in this setting, providing unique cold cuts that combine perfectly with the unsalted bread and wine to represent the essence of Tuscan cuisine.
The climate, characterised by its temperate land and sea breezes, which ventilate an area sheltered from north winds by the Apennine chain, is particularly suitable for the curing of prosciutto, as well as for the production of other exquisite regional specialities, such as the wine and olive oil.
These environmental factors, combined with the expertise inherited by the local producers, who have always known how to enhance the flavour of the pork through the use of ancient traditional procedures, are crucial to the quality of the finished product.
Prosciutto Toscano PDO forms a perfect combination with traditional Tuscan bread, which is characteristically unsalted.
This absence of salt, based on an historic Tuscan tradition, is a consequence of the struggles between Pisa and Florence, which became bitter in the twelfth century and led the Maritime Republic of Pisa to block the trade of salt to the interior. In response, the Florentines decided to make their bread without salt and to use whatever salt was available for food preservation and the curing of prosciuttos.
Two hundred years later, Dante himself wrote the famous phrase in the Paradise part of his Divine Comedy referring to this tradition: “Thou shalt have proof how savoureth of salt the bread of others”.
Curator — Consorzio del Prosciutto Toscano