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A Tuscan antipasto: pecorino cheese, salumi, and Prosciutto de Parma

My mom used to tell this joke: A restaurant advertised that they could make any kind of sandwich. One day, a customer ordered an elephant on rye. The waiter noticeably hesitated, and the customer accused him of defaulting on his advertising.

“Not at all,” exclaimed the distressed waiter. “I simply hate cutting up a whole elephant for just one sandwich!”

Mom thought that funny, but learning how to keep large quantities of meat from spoiling was a milestone leap forward for humankind. As with many things culinary, China developed some of the earliest techniques for preserving meat, curing pork legs to produce the first hams some seven millennia ago. Today, while many hams are wet-cured in brine, the aged, cured and smoked hams — such as Spain’s iberico, Italy’s prosciuttos, and Virginia’s Smithfield — arguably stand as pinnacles of the preservation craft.

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Dardens Country Store, home of one of the world's great hams

Recent tasting tours gave me a crash course in fine hams. Smithfield Foods, Inc. currently operates the largest ham company in the world, but several smaller producers salt, cure, hang and smoke hams, following traditional methods. The Darden Family cures about 1,000 hams each year and sells them in their Darden’s Country Store. For more than 60 years, in a nondescript shed on a backcountry road, the Dardens have made some of the world’s finest hams.

How do they do it?

“We use the long-cut hams, like people did on the farms,” said Dee Dee Darden, dowager of the clan. “Our hams are less salty tasting. It’s a labor of love, not mass produced.”

Purchasing fresh hams from Smithfield, the Dardens hand-salt each one. “The salt has got to go to the bone,” said Dee Dee. First stacked flat, the hams cure for seven days before getting resalted and restacked on edge. “That gives it a round shape, easier for slicing.”

“In mid March, we rinse the hams in warm water, then coat them with black pepper. In mid April, we smoke the hams using hickory and apple wood in a barrel smoker. I don’t know how many people have stopped to tell us that our barn’s on fire,” she laughed.

Aged for a full year and sliced so thin as to be translucent, the meat is dark and oily, but almost flaky. The flavor is full, lasting and distinctive.

Black hooves and acorns

The Spanish iberico jamon receives similar exacting and signature treatment. According to Spain’s “denominación de origen” rules, the ham must be made from black Iberian pigs, or crossbred pigs that are at least 50 percent ibérico. Their black hooves — the “pata negra” — set them apart, and the best Iberico pigs graze on acorns — “bellotas”.

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A tapas lunch in Malaga: olives, iced mint lemonade, and Iberico ham

In Alicante’s “mercado centrale,” the market vendors sell iberico pata negra, shaved thin, stuffed into a paper cone. The exquisitely marbled fat permits longer curing, resulting in a dryer ham, a complex, intense flavor and a touch of sweetness. The meat is chewy, but the flavor lasts and evolves. In the tapas café outside the Museo Picasso in Malaga, an order of iberico comes with local olives and an iced mint lemonade. The diversity in flavors and textures spans the palate.

The same, but so different

Italy’s prosciutto is also seasoned, cured, and air dried for 8 to 24 months, resulting in a sweet, delicate ham, generally intended to be eaten raw, as “prosciutto crudo.” Prosciutto can also accompany cooked spring vegetables, such as asparagus or peas; become an ingredient in a simple pasta sauce; get stuffed into, or wrapped around, other meats or melon; or adorn a pizza.

Each Italian city or province has its own presentation. The Tuscan antipasto platter served in the Ruggero on Florence’s Santa Croce square combines local prosciutto crudo, “salumi,” pâté and pecorino cheese. At the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps, Alla Rampa offers a platter of “Prosciutto di Parma” — perhaps the best known Italian ham — accompanied by chunks of nearly crystalline Parmigiano Reggiano and a creamy buffalo mozzarella.

Though each restaurant’s presentation was similar, the taste of each prosciutto was distinctive. The same can be said for the Smithfield and iberico. All of the hams are products of relatively similar traditional and exacting routines for curing, smoking, and aging, but they each have a unique flavor and texture.

Ham and crab appetizer

Serves 4

1 pound Chesapeake Bay crabmeat

8 thin slices Smithfield, iberico or prosciutto ham

1/4 pound butter

Ground nutmeg

Briefly sauté the ham slices in butter and set aside. In the same butter, sauté the crabmeat, adding more butter if necessary. Do not overcook. Place one slice of the cooked ham onto a plate, top with a scoop of crabmeat and a second slice of ham. Dust very lightly with nutmeg, and serve.

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Visit his website at www.reedhellmanwordsmith.com.

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