Pro­sciutto or pancetta

The Press - Zest - - Food -

Q. What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween pro­sciutto and pancetta? Can I use them in­ter­change­ably? – A cus­tomer at the Lyt­tel­ton Farm­ers’ Mar­ket A There is an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween the two meats. The best way to think about them is that pro­sciutto is like ham and can be eaten raw, whereas pancetta is like ba­con and should be cooked. How­ever, that is only a rough guide or some­time rule.

Pro­sciutto is the generic Ital­ian name for a hind leg of a pig that has been salted and then air-cured for a long time. The tra­di­tional Christ­mas ham we have here has been cooked and cured, but pro­sciutto crudo is air-cured and is not cooked.

There is an enor­mous va­ri­ety of prosci­utti in Italy and the sub­tle dif­fer­ences de­pend on the way the pig was raised, what it ate and how the meat is cured. The most fa­mous, pro­sciutto di Parma, comes from the area around the city of Parma, where parme­san cheese is also made. The pigs are fed on parsnips, but also on the whey left over from the cheese-mak­ing process. This makes the flesh mild and sweet. The pigs are reared in­doors and not al­lowed to roam, so the meat is quite fatty. An­other pop­u­lar pro­sciutto is San Daniele, which many con­sider su­pe­rior to pro­sciutto di Parma. This ham comes from the north­ern re­gion of Italy where the pigs are fed on acorns. The meat is leaner and darker as the pigs roam out­side. You can taste the nutty acorns in its del­i­cate flavour.

These two can be found in Christchurch shops, but it is harder to find many other Ital­ian prosci­utti here such as the savoury Toscana pro­sciutto or the sweet Mo­dena pro­sciutto, as only small amounts are pro­duced.

The Span­ish ver­sion (ja­mon ser­rano) is dif­fer­ent again from Ital­ian pro­sciutto as it is cured with a coat­ing of lard. It has more flavour and sig­nif­i­cantly less salt added than pro­sciutto, as the air in Spain is drier and nat­u­rally saltier for the cur­ing process. Ital­ians and Spa­niards ar­gue over which is bet­ter.

To serve pro­sciutto or ser­rano, make sure it is sliced very thinly and serve at room tem­per­a­ture, al­low­ing the in­tense flavours to shine. You can cook pro­sciutto, but do so only lightly, as it goes very crispy very quickly. Add it as a gar­nish to risotto or pasta dishes.

Pancetta is the Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of our streaky ba­con. Ba­con here is brined or salted to cure it, and then some­times smoked.

Pancetta is slightly dif­fer­ent in that the salt cure is flavoured with spices such as fen­nel, nut­meg, pep­per and gar­lic. It is also then air-cured for up to four months. Com­mer­cial ba­con in New Zealand is never air-cured. Pancetta is tra­di­tion­ally cured be­tween two boards (pancetta testa), giv­ing it the flat shape. You can how­ever, also get rolled pancetta (pancetta ar­ro­to­lata), which is usu­ally not as fatty as the flat pancetta. But the fat is where all the flavour is, and as pancetta is used to flavour stews, soups and pasta it is this flavour you need.

Pancetta can be quite ex­pen­sive in New Zealand, but a lit­tle goes a long way if you are us­ing it in recipes where it is diced up and cooked as the flavour base – usu­ally with onions and gar­lic form­ing the base. Try a warm salad with rocket, baby spinach or wa­ter­cress, dressed with fried, still-warm pancetta. The fat from the pancetta gen­tly wilts the leaves.

Now, hav­ing said that you should think of pancetta as ba­con that needs to be cooked, I have had it raw and it was sublime.

You need good qual­ity pancetta sliced into see-through slices which you can serve wrapped around fresh figs or juicy peaches, or if you can get them, try ice-cold ly­chees. Or sliced raw pancetta with sliced smoked salmon.

Jenny Gar­ing, lin­guist, trav­eller, gourmet and teacher an­swers Zest read­ers’ culi­nary ques­tions. She is also ex­tend­ing Ground Es­sen­tials food prod­ucts and run­ning cook­ing classes. Send ques­tions to

DIf­fer­ent but sim­i­lar: Pro­sciutto and pancetta hang in an Ital­ian del­i­catessen.

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