Techniques for preserving and processing pork in the Veneto Region were known and widespread as far back as Pre-Roman times. In fact, pork carcasses dating back to that period have been found without the hind legs, a clear sign they were put to use.
Prosciutto, the Italian word for ham, comes from the Latin “perexuctus” which means drained, a reference to the processing method. Several very old recipes in cook books and agricultural texts from the sixteenth century onwards list ham as a popular ingredient in the type of dishes that would be served in country gentlemen’s manor houses. In the seventeenth century, there are various mentions of a ham called “di Padova” (from Padua).
Poorer farming families used to breed pigs and sell the hind legs to shopkeepers. They would keep the other parts for their own use to make sausages, cotechino (a fresh sausage meant to be cooked), salami, sopressa, pancetta and capocollo (cured ham made from collar cuts), which could be eaten in dribs and drabs throughout the year. This custom gave rise to such expressions as the “piggy bank”, as pigs proved to be the saving grace for the poor. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that fresh hind legs began to appear at the marketplace. A rigid schedule of salting times, ham weight, aging conditions and time – which in some cases may be up to 24 months – produces the elegant, intense and full-bodied taste of Veneto Berico Euganeo ham P.D.O., with its perfect balance of softness, sweetness and aroma. It is this softness and delicate, distinctive aroma that makes it an ideal gourmet starter, first or main course. It slices to reveal its characteristic pink colour.
The typical processing area, clearly defined in the official guidelines, includes fifteen municipalities in the provinces of Padua, Vicenza and Verona, comprised in the area of the Po valley and foothills of the Berici and Euganean Hills, which share natural and environmental features. Two ranges of hills influence the direction of the winds, rains and the local temperature to create a weather balance ideal for the aging process. Both the area – divided into wooded hillsides and extensive farmlands on the plains – and the local economy, which for the most part revolves around agriculture, ensure an ecologically healthy environment, perfect for processing ham.
The three best-known towns in this area are Montagnana, the main production centre, Este and Lonigo. Montagnana, in particular, played host to certain historical events leading up to the rivalry between Carraresi and Scaligeri after joining the Serenissima Republic of Venice, an era of glory and embellishment, when monuments and works of art abounded. The city walls date from the Middle Ages and are perfectly preserved in their entirety, making the town an urban and architectural jewel of world renown.