The veritas crudo of prosciutto

I rarely write about food on this blog – that’s not due to a lack of interest, but rather just a matter of focus – this is a wine blog, after all. But following a recent trip to San Daniele di Friuli, to sample wines and enjoy the famed local prosciutto, I felt compelled to write about the San Daniele PDO (Protected Designation of Origin – essentially the same concept as appelation contrôlée in wine).

Prosciutto being carved

Prosciutto being carved

As you admire the deep red hue of a leg of Prosciutto di San Daniele sitting on its carving clamp, you may imagine the artisanal process by which it was made – some pigs running around in the field, the ham hung from the ceiling in the farmer’s cellar as it slowly matures. However this is pure fantasy for the vast majority of Prosciutto di San Daniele, which is produced on an industrial scale, using meat from factory farmed pigs. This is not to doubt the consistent quality of the product – the PDO regulations are fanatic in their detail, designating everything from the breed of the pigs (Usually the Landrace Danish cross), to their age and weight when killed (9 months, around 160Kg), and the ingredients that can be used in the cure (just salt, basically – nitrates are forbidden).

But there is one area where the PDO literature is strangely silent. That is the manner of pig rearing. Perhaps many of us believe when we buy a premium product like prosciutto that the raw materials are also produced to the highest possible quality standard, but this is largely not the case. Surely, you may ask, outdoor reared or so called “free range” animals would be used to create the most flavoursome product? Well actually no – most prosciutto producers, and indeed the consorzio, will meekly protest that it is not possible to rear the necessary quantity of pigs with any access to the outdoors.

Pigs trotter on the conveyor belt

Pigs trotter on the conveyor belt

Does this matter? The answer may depend on your own moral compass, or feelings about factory farming. My view is that animals are a vital part of sustainable farming, but also deserving of the utmost respect. For me, that means breeding and raising them in humane conditions that allow natural behaviour to be exhibited – and being kept indoors for your whole life does not fit that bill for a pig. Anyone who has ever watched pigs snuffling around to find grubs, acorns, or other goodies nestling in the grass will know what I mean. It also means allowing slow growing, not artificially boosted by chemically-enriched diets, steroids or routine antibiotics.

Furthermore, I do not buy the argument given by producers that they have no choice but to use factory farming methods and indoor rearing. It is largely a matter of price points and customer demand. Why else have giants like Macdonalds (in the UK) and Mr Kipling cakes switched to using only free-range eggs, across their whole range? No, here’s where the real problem lies – because a “value added” product like Prosciutto is conveniently divorced from its origins, it is just too easy to maintain the bucolic image in the customer’s mind – and thus to avoid any need to explore a more humane way to rear the meat.

I must however commend Principe, San Daniele’s largest producer of Prosciutto. They do go a little further than the PDO regulations, in stating that they never use antibiotics, and that they “recently started a new farm-to-field program to ensure world-class animal welfare standards by building (their) own breeding farm, Fattorie del Principe.” They continue: “The pigs are raised in a natural environment in pens three times larger than required by the European Union’s 2013 minimum standard. The space is designed to stop the need for tail docking and teeth grinding or clipping.“. So, Principe don’t cut off the pig’s tails or remove their teeth. I wonder how many less lucky prosciutto pigs are treated in this barbaric way – most, I suspect. I note that Principe does not state what proportion of their production is sourced from their own farm.

Our group of journalists and bloggers visited the Principe factory in San Daniele, and although the industrial scale of production is not to my taste, there’s no doubt that they run an exemplary operation in terms of hygiene and efficiency. One of Principe’s quality assurance staff mentioned that they have a single customer who stipulates organically reared pork –  I asked if they could taste the difference in the final product. The slightly sheepish response was yes – it did taste a bit better. This leads me to wonder why Principe or other enterprising producers don’t create a premium range, with slow-grown outdoor reared pork. There is no question that the flavours would be more complex and satisfying, and a higher price could easily be justified.

Homemade Coppa and Salami at Magnas

Homemade Coppa and Salami at Magnas

That brings me to my next gripe. If we compare a PDO like Prosciutto di San Daniele to its equivalent in the wine world, the problem becomes obvious. What if AOC Puligny-Montrachet or Pauillac could be churned out in 5L wine boxes, and made with oak chips, in addition to the high quality versions? The poor consumer would struggle to understand what the point of the AOC was. Yet, with PDOs like Prosciutto di San Daniele, there is nothing on the label to signal to the end customer whether they are consuming the most economically manufactured factory product, or a truly artisanal “slow food” version. I’m sure that self respecting Italian gourmets have their favourite producers, but the export customer may not have this insider knowledge.

The danger is that the PDO and the very tradition that it seeks to protect could become compromised. Essentially, the quality level has to drop when products are being produced on a massive industrial scale. Most Prosciutto di San Daniele that I have tasted is faithful to the PDO concept – the texture, age and colour all tick the right boxes. But the flavour can tend towards the bland, which is probably not surprising when you consider the raw materials. Factory farmed pork can never recreate the taste of a traditionally reared animal, even with 13 months’ aging.

The day after visiting Principe, we were lucky to gorge on some homemade coppa and salami at Magnas winery and Agriturismo, in Isonzo del Friuli. The comparison with “industrial” prosciutto was marked. The intensity of colour and flavour was on a different scale, the whole experience sublime. A bittersweet reminder of how far prosciutto production has come from its peasant or “artisan” roots.


Quality assessment

Quality assessment

A lot of ham

A lot of ham

Prosciutto entering the factory

Prosciutto entering the factory

Disclosure: I was the guest of Aria di Festa / Friulano and Friends, who arranged the visit to Principe and various wineries.

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    • Mel

      Thanks for highlighting this. I think that drawing the comparisons between the standards required for PDO and AOC is an excellent one to draw.
      I have previously fallen into the trap of believing that PDO products are also high welfare, but will be looking at this in more detail from now on.
      I also think that perhaps mailing a link to this post to the body that awards the PDO and asking them to answer the points that you raise would be a great way of beginning a wider conversation on the issue.
      Thanks Simon.

      • I might send this to the Corsorzio di San Daniele. I did talk to them about it, both in London and in Friuli, but lets just say that attitudes towards animal welfare are quite different in the UK and Italy. People maybe care about animal welfare in the UK for the wrong reasons – ie: they’ve become squeamish, after watching so many TV documentaries about factory farming, but it does seem higher on the agenda here.

        I don’t want to just argue this on the welfare ticket though. I care just as much about the flavour of the end product, and it is plainly superior when you have “happy” naturally reared animals as your raw material.

        • “I don’t want to just argue this on the welfare ticket though. I care just as much about the flavour of the end product, and it is plainly superior when you have “happy” naturally reared animals as your raw material.”

          As I mentioned on Facebook, this is not true 100% of the time and please pardon the phrase, but a bit to hippy dippy for me. It’s true that you can taste differences in meats based on how they are raised, but you cannot tell me that all farm raised, natural, artisan etc meats are markedly better 100% of the time. Why?

          Because I have tasted a lot of meat as an ex butcher at natural food store. There is PLENTY of industrial product that is just as good as the “natural” version. Not always, but definitely not never.

          Either way, I am all for better life for the animals, and better conditions, which I do believe not only at times taste better but can be healthier, but blanket statements that industrial meat is never as good show a case of the pendulum needing to find a nice middle ground!

          • You are quite correct that different methods of animal rearing don’t automatically result in a better end product.

            However much of the thrust of my original post is that the consumer should be able to choose what kind of product they are buying. If they are happy with a product made on a huge, industrial scale using factory farmed meat, that’s fine, but if they wish to purchase an artisanally made small-production type of Prosciutto, it should be their choice. It is also up to the consumer to decide which product they prefer and whether there is a quality difference.

            The challenge is that with the Prosciutto DOPs there is NO clue on the labelling, and no information provided to the customer that would allow them to make this choice. That is what I believe is wrong here.

            • I would agree with that. Choice is good.

    • Killian

      Jamon Iberico all the way!

      • Apparently even the “Iberico” term is open to abuse these days. The DO should certainly deliver outstanding quality, and animal welfare, but there seem to be more and more producers/restaurants/importers playing fast and loose with the term to describe products which don’t fulfil the strict DO criteria.

        • We can talk Iberico when you are here…but as you say, even that is not what people always think. I really would prefer someone discussion of balance between industrial and artisan

          • What do you mean Ryan, when you say “discussion of balance between industrial and artisan” ?

            • There is a place for both. Not all industrial farming is evil. This is odd, my post on Facebook just now has some links to a podcast that is interesting to listen too. It talks more of the middle ground. Not directly related to this debate, but it does show that more people talk about food from personal emotions that real numbers and impact.

            • that is undoubtedly an issue. But the bigger issue in the UK is that people have become totally divorced from food production, to the point that the wool can be pulled over their eyes too easily.

              I’m all for choice, so long as it is transparent and available.

      • Lilapud

        I’ve seen Jamon Iberico with additives and nitrates? Shame.
        I am crestfallen by this article – I feel so naive Ive been using prosciutto instead of bacon as I thought it was a more ethically farmed pork and definitely tasted better than Australian bacon. I feel quite sickened now! Thank you for posting this. I wrote tot San Daniele asking about whether the pigs were kept in pens or were free range a while back and this is not what they told me in reply.

        • Unfortunately there are no guarantees in terms of “ethical”. The best advice is to buy local, and cultivate a relationship with someone as close to the production chain as possible.

          Lilapud – you are not alone. Many people assume that these products are small production/artisanal, because that’s how they’re presented and packaged.

          Don’t feel sickened though. There is a lot worse than San Daniele ham, in terms of animal welfare. Most Danish bacon for example!

    • Ruth

      This is another fallout of the industrial age and hyper consumerism. Hopefully, people will start taking a bigger interest in where their food is coming from and choosing to spend their money accordingly.

      • Yes, it would be certainly be better to eat less of a higher quality product, But that’s a very difficult message to get across to consumers who have been “enjoying” cheap, factory farmed food for a few decades . . .

    • Great article with some interesting questions on the PDO’s approach into ham curing… I like the comparison with the AOC – but if I am really pedantic I would say that the only difference between AOC and PDO would be the origin definition. AOC defines grapes need to come from X, it does not define the way the land has to be worked, treatments allowed etc in the same way the PDO does for the rearing of the actual pigs… Puligny-Montrachet can come in different sizes (1/2 bottle, bottle, magnum or even jeroboam) and organic or biodynamic indicators are optional. They are now displayed because they bring extra value. Once the San Daniele producers believe that organically or outdoor reared pork adds value and has it niche market they may consider adding something to the label to point this out…

      I hope consumers will realize sooner rather than later that happy pigs make better ham, and that they will look for indicators of this happiness – eg a statement that the pig was reared outdoors – as well as show a willingness to pay a premium for this extra flavour value…

      • I was waiting for someone to pick me up on this point! It’s a fair comment, and of course you are right that AOC regulations no more define the method of farming than the PDO regs do.

        However, the two AOCs I chose were significant – they’re both at the highest quality level in the AOC system. Love it or hate it, the French “pyramid” system for AOCs does mean that as you go up the quality ladder (eg: from AOC Bordeaux, through Medoc to Pauillac), the regulations get tighter, yields must be lower (and this does of course relate to farming practice), production methods more stringent.

        My beef (should that be ham?!) with the PDO is that there are no levels which can signify higher quality production. The lowest grade industrial prosciutto, and its proper artisanal equivalent made from outdoor reared meat quality for the same PDO. It’s comparable to Bordeaux throwing out all categories apart from AOC Bordeaux, or Burgundy dispensing with 1er Crus and Grand Crus, and insisting that DRC may only put “AOC Borgogne” on the label.

    • I received this response from Annalisa at the Corsorzio di San Daniele this morning:

      “On 20/07/12 10:55, Libè, Annalisa ([email protected]) wrote:

      Dear Mr Woolf,

      you very much for your e-mail, we are really happy that you enjoyed the
      trip and the visits to our prosciutto factories and wine makers.

      your area of concern, the yearly ham DOP production in Italy amounts to
      approximately 15 million units, which correspond to 7,5 million
      pigs. As you can imagine, it would be impossible to rear such a big
      quantity of pigs outdoor.

      The fact that the animals are kept indoors should not necessarily be considered a negative aspect of pig farming.

      Production Specifications that regulate the whole production process –
      breeding included – guarantee that the animal welfare is respected and
      monitored through a strict inspection system implemented by a
      certifying body.

      quality of the raw material, together with the optimal climate
      conditions and the maturation technique inherited from an ancient
      ensure production of a premium quality product like Prosciutto di San

      With best regards”

      • Lilapud

        Oh dear GOD.

    • Darryl

      Thanks very much for highlighting this issue. In studying the PDO requirement document I found there to be no mention of ethical or humane animal rearing. I am now on a mission to find ethically raised charcuterie. The closest so far is the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota product with the pigs allowed to road the countryside eating acorns which improves the flavor. If anyone has other suggestions I would appreciate this.