Generally speaking, pork gets plenty of airtime on the 365 blog, but you know what part of the pig rarely gets mentioned? Cured back legs, known to many as prosciutto. This delicacy lies firmly within the European culinary realm, specifically in Spanish and Italian traditions. So yesterday, when I saw not just prosciutto but “San Daniele prosciutto” listed on the Cactus Club’s menu, I thought “aaah, what a perfect excuse to return to my studies in Italy, a.k.a. My Own Personal Year of Pork.
The prosciutto I had was part of a spinach salad, one of Rob Feenie’s feature dishes with Cactus Club, a highly-successful chain across Western Canada. In Richmond, it’s located on No. 3 Road, conveniently close to the Lansdowne Canada Line station. For that I was especially grateful by the time I left, because a fat fury of rain had descended, and I was without an umbrella.
I dined in a part of the restaurant that could be described as a winter patio; some of the walls are permanent but the roof is more tent-like, with lights strung up, several fireplaces, and space heaters keeping everything cozy.
I ordered a half portion of the spinach salad with candied pecans, beets, Okanagan goat cheese, pears, and San Daniele prosciutto ($10.75), as well as the fish tacos with Ocean Wise lingcod ($14).
Let’s first talk about prosciutto. Whether Spanish, Italian, or otherwise, this style of cured ham is made from a pig’s hind leg. It’s cleaned, salted, then hung for months, even years, in rooms that are monitored to maintain the right humidity and temperature. During the curing process, with the help of salt, moisture leaves the bacterial cells that might otherwise spoil the meat. With these cells and moisture slowly removed, the meat cures and its flavour concentrates, so you’re left with a well-preserved, super-tasty swath of meat!
In Italy, the word prosciutto actually just refers to ham, with the difference between cooked and cured designated by the terms “prosciutto cotto” (cooked) and “prosciutto crudo” (cured). The most famous kinds of prosciutto crudo are Prosciutto di Parma (of Emilia-Romagna) and Prosciutto di San Daniele (of Friuli).
What’s the difference between the two? Aren’t they both just the same old pig legs rubbed with salt and hung up to dry? Not quite, and that’s because of the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) system, which ensures producers of either kind are following strict procedural and quality guidelines to preserve each area’s traditional prosciutto-making ways.
Some of the differences include the diets of the pigs,* ages of pigs at slaughter, the humidity and temperatures of the regions in which they’re produced, and details within the curing process. For example, the hind legs used for Prosciutto di San Daniele are stacked for a period of time, meaning the end result is a flatter and stiffer leg. The hoof is also left on the leg, unlike Prosciutto di Parma, where it is removed.
The result of these differing consortium-monitored practises is that the legs not only look, but they taste different too, with slices of Prosciutto di San Daniele generally more sweet, and Prosciutto di Parma more salty.
I lived for a year in Parma and visited San Daniele, so needless to say, I ate a LOT of prosciutto during 2010. Sometimes a restaurant would serve a large plate of it plain, as a first course, and we wandered through many rooms with walls and ceilings literally formed by hundreds of cured hams.
This is all to say that I was delighted with my few slices of Prosciutto di San Daniele when it arrived, folded up like a ribbon, on the plate with my spinach salad. I ate it on its own, with a slice of cheesy, toasted, buttered bread. The white, cured fat marbled throughout prosciutto is soft like butter; in fact, Italians also cure chunks of pure pig back, then slice it up and served it as ‘lardo.’ It is one of the few ways I like eating straight animal fat, though I’d be lying if I said the first time I saw it I wasn’t a little…..thrown.
The greens, beets, cheese, and pears were tasty, but the cured ham was by far the highlight for me.
The soft tortilla fish tacos were a nice, light way to round out the meal.
The lingcod was pan-fried, and topped with slaw, chipotle aioli, and salsa fresca, with guacamole on the side. I felt full after the two dishes, but not uncomfortably so. And can I get a HECK YES for eating fresh vegetables in a restaurant!
Not wishing to make the dessert menu feel ignored about itself, I had a look. I chose the key lime pie ($8), simply because it had a graham cracker crust and I’d recently received an email from a friend announcing she was going to see a live show by “Martha Graham Cracker.” This pie is for you, Emily.
While I would have preferred it a little more lime-y and tangy, the pie was very good – smooth, with a nice thick crust, and unsweetened whipped cream on top.
I was pleased with my meal, and very pleased with the opportunity it provided me to nerd-on about cured meats. Thanks Cactus Club, Rob Feenie, and San Daniele!
*In Parma, part of the pigs’ diets include the leftover whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano production (cheese for which the area is also famous), which harkens back to traditional ‘waste not want not’ traditional cycles.