The World's Most Expensive Ham
Hidden in the hills of Southern Italy is a remote farm where the world’s most expensive ham is produced. I don’t know the farm address or even the name. A mysterious Daniele contacted me out of the blue to ask if I’d like to come to Naples to taste prosciutto di Pietraroja ham. By coincidence, my partner and I were planning a trip to the Amalfi Coast so my curiosity got the better of me and I said yes. Daniele sent instructions by email about how we should meet on the edge of a motorway near Casertano. We ignored this presage of a B-movie Mafia plot with the rationale that neither of us was important enough to kidnap.
She or as it turned out he (my rudimentary Italian didn’t stretch to realizing that Daniele was a boy’s name) met us in a battered Fiat Uno. We followed his car down a dizzying wild-goose chase of country roads. He might as well have taken us blindfold, because we’d never be able to find the farm again. Finally we arrived at a modest wooden homestead, behind which stretched acres of undisturbed green hills. This verdant slice of paradise was chiefly for the enjoyment of 80 very lucky black pigs.
Daniele introduced us to Tullio, the farmer who rears the black pigs that Daniele makes into his prosciutto di Pietraroja ham. Tullio reminded me of an Italian version of Richard Briars in The Good Life. His rare black pigs were introduced from India to Italy by the Roman Emperor Trajan around 100 AD. Unlike easy-going white pigs that are ready to slaughter within nine months weighing 300 kilos, these black pigs take four years to put on just 150 kilos and another six years to turn into revenue-producing ham. I ponder that romance trumps financial efficiency when it comes to black pigs.
We were taken on a tour of the fields where the pigs roamed to the sound of Mozart playing in the background. According to research by the RSPCA, music socializes and calms pigs. They looked relaxed as they rolled about in the mud, snorted and gorged upon acorns.
I smiled nervously as Daniele told us: “Pigs eat everything from grass to flesh. It’s the best way of getting rid of a body.”
Daniele explained how only the female pigs are made into Pietraroja ham. Through pregnancy, the females develop pockets of fat that can be infused with flavours according to their diet. The pigs are fattened up on a rich fodder that includes five types of acorns, chestnuts, arugula, grasses and even rotten apples.
“The acid in the apples turns to sugar when they rot,” explained Daniele. “It’s the equivalent of pig chocolate.”
At four years old, the female pigs are slaughtered during the waxing crescent moon according to ancient Italian farming wisdom. Daniele only buys the legs to make his ham; the rest of the pig goes to make salami. The legs are then stored and matured for a further six years before the final prosciutto di Pietraroja ham is ready. After a decade of labour, the ham is given an official certificate of authentic origin by the Consorzio di Tutela.
Clutching our glasses of homemade red wine, we sat upon rusty chairs on the bougainvillea-shaded terrace. We watched Daniele tie the ham to a stand and brandish a large knife.
“If you cut ham with the grain in the Spanish way, you take all the nerves,” he said cutting the ham against the grain. “This way, the ham is softer.”
As we waited for the ham to be carved, Tullio brought out loaves of bread and plates of homemade mozzarella with tomatoes and basil. Everything from the red wine to the olive oil drizzled on our tomatoes had been produced in this self-sufficient idyll. Everything was 100% organic. His farm encapsulated the slow food movement that started in Italy a couple of decades ago.
Finally the ham was ready to be tasted. It looked richer in colour and softer than its distant cousin prosciutto di Parma ham. Bursting with the flavour of chestnuts and apples, the ham melted in my mouth. I’d never tasted ham like this before. I now understood why his prosciutto di Pietraroja ham had starred at events around the globe from St Tropez’ Byblos Hotel to Moscow’s Italian Embassy; why it had been nibbled by illustrious figures from Andrea Bocelli to Athina Onassis.
The good news is that Daniele can now bring this little slice of paradise to your home in Monte Carlo. A Master Cutter from the Consorzio di Tutela will serve out the ham. At around €6,000 per whole leg, it may not be cheap but surely the world’s best ham must be priceless.
Marcello (22 bis Rue Grimaldi, 98000 Monaco, +377-97-98-37-81.)
You can grab a taste of the Italian slow food culture at this Italian winery and deli where you’ll find prosciutto di Parma hams hanging from the ceilings as well as Parmesan cheese and wine. The store has another outlet in Beaulieu-sur-Mer.