By Kathy Hunt.
Prosciutto and melon. It’s a partnership as classic as olive oil and vinegar, hazelnut and chocolate or tomato and basil. It’s also a match showcasing the exquisiteness of prosciutto di San Daniele. In her book Italian Food British food writer Elizabeth David called San Daniele’s prosciutto “perhaps the most delicious ham in the world and the most perfect hors d’oeuvre.” While tradition dictates pairing these thin slices of cured ham with such melons as cantaloupe or honeydew, other equally strong unions exist. These are the marriages with berries, pomes and stone fruit.
Putting a savory ingredient together with a different sweet one may not sound all that extraordinary. However, by substituting ripe strawberries, pears or nectarines for those customary melon bites, you add a hint of sourness and a touch of complexity to the salty-sweet relationship. Replace the melon with fresh figs and you end up with a slightly earthy yet honeyed dish.
By changing the fruit, you not only enhance the taste but also the texture of this iconic hors d’oeuvre. Akin to melons in this respect, prosciutto di San Daniele is renowned for its velvety, melt-in-your-mouth consistency. When wrapped around a wedge of cantaloupe, it bonds seamlessly with the luscious fruit. The result is in an extremely smooth first course.
If draped over a crisp apple slice, the meat lends a pleasing, sweet-and-salty softness to the apple’s tart crunch. Should you toss it together with chewy and juicy red grapes or cherries, each mouthful will provide a burst of contrasting textures and tastes. Ultimately, by varying the couplings, you create a more interesting and tasty dish.
While this simple combination of cured meat and fruit works beautifully, it does benefit from an extra ingredient or two. A drizzle of good quality balsamic vinegar or honey or a dash of freshly ground white or black pepper elevates its flavors. So, too, does a splash of fresh lime or lemon juice.
Including a second fruit, such as diced, macerated strawberries or “strawberry caviar,” is another delectable option. Similarly, a layer of fruit chutney or marmalade makes a delightful addition. In a pinch, either spread can stand in for fresh fruit.
Heartier ingredients likewise complement the two. At New York City’s Babbo Restaurant prosciutto and figs appear together on grilled bread in “Prosciutto di San Daniele ‘Riserva’ with Black Pepper ‘Fett’unta.’” Fruit and prosciutto feature elsewhere in pizza, pasta dishes and cheese plates.
For Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food columnist Miriam Rubin salads, particularly salads composed of grains and greens, go effortlessly with these star ingredients.
“A salad I developed for my book Grains combined wheat berries, raspberries and torn prosciutto. You toss them with a light vinaigrette of olive oil, sherry vinegar, sliced red onion, a little honey and maybe add a touch of something spicy, like horseradish, and serve on a bed of arugula. By the way,” added Rubin, the first female chef at New York City’s Four Seasons restaurant, “in Friuli Venezia Giulia they serve horseradish with prosciutto.”
As Rubin pointed out, Friuli Venezia Giulia is a geographic region in northeast Italy and where the town of San Daniele, home of prosciutto di San Daniele, is located. Since the 11th century the townspeople of San Daniele have salted, pressed and dried hams using only two ingredients—sea salt and pigs from Central and Northern Italy. In 1996 their eponymous food received a Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union. This designation acknowledges, regulates and protects indigenous products such as prosciutto.
When partnering prosciutto with fruit, keep in mind the thickness of the individual meat slices. As you might expect, the thicker the piece is, the stronger the flavor will be. If you’re adding it to a milder ingredient, such as an Empire, Red Delicious and some Winesap varieties of apple, a Katy, Manchurian or Sungold apricot or barely ripened papaya or mango, you will want to use thinner slices. That way the cured ham won’t overshadow its more delicate mate.
Bolder fruits, including dried figs and intensely sweet Concorde or Comice pears, will hold their own against assertive flavors. You can mate these fruits with denser portions of ham and not worrying about them being eclipsed.
Along with thickness you should look at flavor affinities. Think of these as the tastes, aromas and textures that pair best with another food. Historically, the honeyed taste, musky, floral odor and lush feel of cantaloupe or honeydew have provided the perfect balance to the sweet, earthy tang of salt-cured ham. Their features meld together, creating a succulent and satisfying canapé. Considering all their complementary aspects, it’s easy to see why melons have long been to the go-to partners for prosciutto.
Whether you opt for the customary melon or branch out and try something new, pair your prosciutto with fruit. Your taste buds will thank you.
Prosciutto di San Daniele and Pear Wedges with Blue Cheese and Honey
Recipe courtesy of the National Honey Board
Makes 8 servings
2 pears, cored and cut into 8 wedges
16 thin slices of 6 ounce prosciutto di San Daniele, sliced
5 ounces blue cheese
1/4 cup honey
Place a San Daniele slice on flat surface and then place a pear wedge in the middle of the prosciutto. Sprinkle the wedge with about 2 teaspoons of blue cheese and then drizzle honey on top. Wrap the prosciutto around the pear. Repeat with the remaining pears and prosciutto and serve.