Food, Food Artisans

How to Eat Cured Ham

Francois Vecchio’s 3 Rules About Eating Cured Hams (Plus One Of My Own)

Francois Vecchio is one of the most knowledgeable (and nicest) folks in the world when it comes to the subject of cured meats of any sort. He happened to share this list with me a while back, and I’ve found it very helpful in assisting everyone I know to gain more enjoyment out of eating cured hams and salumi of all sorts. Although #1 and #2 were long familiar to me, #3, although incredibly obvious once he said it, was something I’d never thought of. We’ll call these “Francois’ 3 Rules Not To Break When It Comes to Serving Cured Ham.” Being more proper and of Swiss-Italian origin, he calls them, “reprehensible activities.” He brought them up in the context of Prosciutto di Parma but they’re totally true for good cured hams. So . . . if you want to get the most out of your investment in any cured ham —Prosciutto di Parma, Jamon Serrano, acorn-fed (bellota) Iberico ham from Spain, Herb Eckhouse’s, Newsom’s or Edwards’ Country Hams —don’t do this stuff, ok?!

1. Don’t trim the fat off the Prosciutto

Francois and every other European ham aficionado will tell you the same thing. The fat isn’t a bad thing—it’s THE most prized part of the product. I always come back to the story of one ham maker in Spain who was showing me how to trim a ham. You do remove the fat on the very exterior of the ham, which has Prosciutto di Parmayellowed and turned slightly rancid. But that’s it—the rest of the fat is to be left alone because that is, of course, where the best of the flavor is at! “If you take away the fat,” the Spaniard said, smiling (sort of) “I will have to kill you!” I know this is a bit like pushing dark crusts—it runs so counter to most people’s mindset that not everyone is going to be receptive. And of course we don’t ever want to lecture a guest or come across as preachy about this stuff so we need to say it gently, or better still, in the right setting with humor. But really, the fat is where it’s at. I guess, now that I’m thinking about it, it’s akin to cutting the crusts off the Farm Bread; not inherently evil but sort of misses the mark in terms of getting the full eating experience.

2. Don’t hold sliced Prosciutto for any time in your fridge.

I guess the model for ham buying would more akin to buying fresh fish than to aged cheese. While cured ham won’t go “bad” in a day (it really won’t likely literally go bad for weeks or even months), good cured ham is definitely more something you’d want to eat the day you buy it, maybe at most the day after. Once the ham has been cut it’s exposed to the air, and it starts to lose aromatics and flavor. Nothing inherently evil about it, it’s just if you’re going to spend good money to get really good ham, why not eat it at its best? With that in mind, I encourage you to just buy a little bit at a time—even an ounce or two at time is fine—and then come back and buy a bit more.

3. Never wrap Prosciutto around melon

This is the one of Francois’ rules that got my attention. It makes perfect scientific sense but since I don’t really have a science mind, I just never thought about it. But once Francois put it in my mind a few months ago I’ve started to spread the good word. And this column will, I hope, help to do that. So here’s the deal—if you wrap cured ham around slices of melon (the way they do in all those fancy food magazine photos) the water in the fruit will naturally pull the salt out of the ham, which completely degrades the careful curing done by the ham maker and throws the flavor totally out of balance. That doesn’t mean that ham and melon (or figs or whatever) don’t go well together—they certainly do. “Just,” as Francois says, “…use both hands—one for the Prosciutto, and use the other hand to pick melon, pear, grape or fig bites.” And he adds, “Drop all for a wash of sweet Orvieto!”

To Francois’ list I’m adding a fourth point:

4. Always eat cured ham at room temperature

When it comes to serving cured ham follow the same guidelines as you would with cheese—get the ham to room temperature before you take a bite. If you doubt the value of this small step, taste a piece of the same ham right out of the refrigerator and another that’s at about 65°F. I think you’ll find that the former is missing about 65% of the flavor. Since the cost to the consumer is the same in each instance, it’s strongly in everyone’s interest to serve at the warmer temperature. It won’t fix the economy overnight but it is a way to increase value significantly without adding cost in the least.