A pig thigh can only become Prosciutto di San Daniele if it fulfils three conditions: first of all, the origin of the raw material. The thighs must come exclusively from pigs bred in ten regions of Northern Central Italy (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzo, Marche, Umbria). Secondly, respect for the production method inherited from an ancient tradition. Since any form of freezing of the meat is forbidden, the fresh thighs must rapidly reach the small hill town of the Friuli region, to set in motion a production process that recreates the natural rhythm of the seasons, using sea salt, without the addition of chemical additives or preservatives.
Finally, the last step must occur in the town of San Daniele del Friuli. We could define this as maturation, but in fact this process is something more, it has to do with the Genius loci (distinctive atmosphere or pervading spirit of the place) of the prosciutto capital. Nature lends a hand. A vital element is the good air that prevails there, where the winds from the Carnic Alps meet those coming from the Adriatic Sea, carrying resinous scents that mix with brackish aromas in an environment where humidity and temperature are regulated by the morainic land, and the waters of the Tagliamento river, one of the last European rivers to preserve its original course.
The production technique, inherited from a time-honoured tradition, has been maintained and handed down by ham-makers through the generations. One could be forgiven for thinking that the secret is now unveiled, captured in a technical term - the microclimate - but to understand Prosciutto di San Daniele, we must go deeper into the consciousness of the place and the identity of its people, who have always played their part in ensuring that authentic Prosciutto di San Daniele arrives on our tables.
In the pre-Roman era, San Daniele del Friuli was an important Celtic settlement, thanks to its special position en route to Northeast Europe. The surrounding area contains the remains of various “castellieri”, the typical Celtic constructions used as watchtowers.
The Celts, a relatively non-migratory people, devoted to agriculture and with minimal warlike tendencies, were the first to use salt to preserve pork, of which they were major consumers. They built the foundations of the extraordinary rural culture which the Romans put to expert use later on.
In the era following that of the Celts, the oldest San Daniele settlement is Roman, from the 1st century AC: a villa positioned right on the summit of the hill.
The Romans were very familiar with ham: evidence of this can be found in the ancient merchants’ road to Rome, the present Via Panisperna, named after “panis” (bread) and “perna” (“perna sicca”: ham), and in a butcher’s memorial stone found in Aquileia (UD), which boasts a Prosciutto di San Daniele complete with trotter.
Romans experimented with the fact that reduced humidity, good aeration and the climate of the San Daniele hills enable optimum preservation of meat, thus inventing maturation.
In subsequent eras pigs were constantly present in the San Daniele region, and the practice of breeding developed in the area.
The first written evidence appeared in the mediaeval period, and can be found particularly in the deeds of the Community and Council of Arengo (the Council of the family heads) of the city of San Daniele.
In the mediaeval period San Daniele del Friuli became a fief of the Patriarch, Earl-Bishop and Imperial Elector, who built his summer residence on the hill and for centuries received abundant “corvées” (unpaid labour) in the form of “pairs of ham”.
From patriarchal domain, San Daniele developed into a “free commune”. Documents handed down to us show communal usages which regulate the areas of pastureland, prescribe the regulations allowing pigs to be left free within the city, and more. From that point on, pig breeding became an important economic source for the city of San Daniele.
“San Daniele” is mentioned often in the deeds known as “I Quaderni dei Giurati” (Jury Books), recorded by scribes starting from 1200, which in several passages testify to the considerable value of this product in those years. Evidence is provided by the regulations of the communal markets, the quantifications of duties on goods, leases or deeds of sale which specified payment in hams.
Dating from around 1490 is a handwritten text which mentions the San Daniele hams used to pay the lawyers defending a dispute regarding fishing on the Corno river.
From the thirteenth century onwards we find numerous mentions of ham as barter goods and as precious gifts: the Municipality of San Daniele sent hams in abundance to the Doge of Venice in order to obtain arms and labour during the terrible incursions by the Turks; and to the patriarchs of Aquileia, in order to curry favour with them.
From the fifteenth century onwards, the name persuttus became established instead of the more usual popular term zoccolo, used to identify pork hams.
Throughout the feudal period, the renown of the ham complete with trotter is demonstrated by the exchanges between the city of San Daniele and the feudal potentates of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Baveria and Austrians. In 1547, San Daniele even became a key player in European history with the gift sent by the Municipality to the Patriarch involved in the Council of Trent: the hams were delivered on the backs of two mules to the high prelate involved in the work of the Council - “thirty pairs of hams”; the veterinarians of the “Serenissima” issued authentic health certificates for dispatch of the ham to the King and Queen of Hungary. In around 1740, we have the first records of San Daniele hams dispatched by post in wooden boxes to Vienna in Austria, and subsequently to Ljubljana.
Spared by wars and invasions, San Daniele experienced periods of considerable economic and cultural splendour, definitively emerging from the Venetian orbit only after the treaty of Campoformido (1797); passing to Austria together with the entire “Native land of Friuli”, it finally suffered sacking by the French led by General Massena, who widely plundered the hams, in addition to very precious illuminated manuscripts stolen from the Guarneriana Library.
In more recent history San Daniele became widespread and well-known as a typical product, and was referred to by this name from 1800. Dating back to the 30s is a note in which Gabriele D’Annunzio entreated a Brescian friend to obtain some for him.
In the 20s the first ham factories were established: the domestic cellar was transformed into the centre of a true autonomous production activity. At the end of the 40s, the ham factory had become an industry, and from the 60s its development resulted in some of the production companies contributing to the formation of the national and international prosciutto crudo market.
Today, it is the most famous Italian prosciutto.
SOURCE & IMAGE
Consorzio del Prosciutto di San Daniele - Via Umberto I° 26 - 33038 San Daniele del Friuli, Udine - Italy