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by Carla Bardi

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

My first memories of prosciutto entailed a veritable explosion in my mouth. As if hurtled in a flash to my first culinary Oz, I had the distinct realization that I was not in ham country any more. To call prosciutto “Italian Ham” is akin to calling the operas of Giuseppe Verdi “Italian Musical Plays.” Neither term properly conveys the sublime we find so often when it comes to Italy.

Carla Bardi’s Prosciutto comes to us from the Wine Appreciation Guild’s “Italian Pantry” series: luscious fully-illustrated volumes that give us the Italian A-to-Z on olive oil, pasta, cheese, and of course prosciutto and all its cousins. In truth, the book’s original title, Salumi, gives Italian food devotees a far better idea of the book’s ambitious scope; the term refers to “a vast array of different meats that have been cured with salt and spices then cooked or dried.” But even the term salumi fails to go the whole distance. Strictly speaking, salumi refers to any food (though usually pork) preserved in salt. The term insacatti refers to those meats packed into natural or synthetic animal gut. To do true justice to the book’s subject, the author is forced to resort to the unexciting but accurate phrase “Italian deli meats.” Salamis can qualify as salumi, insacatti, or both, but these distinctions are best left for the linguists. We food fanciers would rather read, salivate, and go online to book trips to Italy.

Prosciutto is the only book I know of to go into true depth on Italian deli meats. The photographs provide as much as the eye can possible absorb without having to call in reinforcements from an additional sense. Take the page on culatello, a specialty ham produced only in the Bassa Verdiana area (Giuseppe Verdi’s birthplace) in Italy’s matchless Emilia-Romag na region. The photograph of the string-draped, pork-filled pig’s bladder after the humid curing process has mottled the skin is truly evocative; of course we get the inside shot of the meat in slices, artfully arrayed.

Parma ham, a close regional cousin of culatello, benefits from a dry curing method. Legally, it can be cured only in the region between the Taro and Baganza rivers, near the city of Parma. The pigs involved are reared indoors, subsisting largely on the whey from that other inimitable product of the city, Parmesan cheese, showing that everything in Italian cuisine depends on everything else.

In addition to the fine photography on every page—in fact the high point of all the book’s prodigious color—are the dishes featured in each of the 30 recipes that make Prosciutto such a valuable find for the cookbook section. Many of the recipes are elegantly simple. Finocchiona is a Tuscan salami variant that owes its name to a healthy dose of wild fennel seeds (combined with pork and fat from a pig’s jowl, red wine, salt, pepper and herbs, all stuffed into a cow’s gut). The featured “Finocchiona Salad” showcases the meat on a bed of arugula, topped by fennel and Pecorino cheese. Another recipe wraps the finocchiona in cabbage leaves, simmers it in tomato basil sauce, and pairs it with Polenta. Mortadella, developed in the Italian city of Bologna, cannot be compared with the mass-produced, machine-extruded bologna (pronounced “baloney”) that still hoodwinks Americans into believing they are eating food. The book’s recipe for “Fried Mortadella” dips chunks of mortadella in beaten egg, then bread crumbs, before pan frying. The recipe, as are many Italian recipes, is simple; if only the ingredients were not so difficult to find. At least the photographs instruct as they seduce.

You can’t eat photography, but it does motivate you to hit the icebox at least to fill the void. The gustatory mitigation is at best temporary. The sad thing about Prosciutto is that the book can only hope to cover the 25 or so general and regional categories of Italian deli meats. In real fact, every town and village in Italy boasts its own proud variant, a few produced from goose, venison, wild boar, or even horse. The producers—even if they argue about politics, automobiles and love—undoubtedly agree that these products are designed to be enjoyed without hurry. I guess it’s finally time to arrange that year-long sabbatical. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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