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