Prosciutto di San Daniele is more than a prosciutto – it’s a way of life.
You can never forget that this Italian town is built on, and is based around, its world-famous prosciutto. Shops sell fridge magnets and postcards celebrating the town and its product and there are numerous souvenirs to be bought, often pig-related!
A favourite dish in local restaurants is Tagliolini al San Daniele – tagliolini pasta in a creamy sauce with slices of Prosciutto di San Daniele.
Prosciutto is so much a part of the culture of the in town where it is produced, that even the main church there, the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate (Church of Saint Anthony the Abbot) – which dates back to the year 1308 – is dedicated to the patron saint of pork butchers and charcutiers.
Driving towards the old centre of the town, you’ll pass the large buildings owned by different producers, with their family and brand names featuring proudly on their company headquarters. Dotted around the outskirts of the town, these are the buildings where the prosciutto is salted, cured and matured.
The production of Prosciutto di San Daniele is, in the traditional way, still mostly a family affair, with generation after generation of family members involved in the business.
These days, of course, townspeople have modern jobs in all sorts of industries and sectors and buy their Prosciutto di San Daniele from shops as well as directly from their favourite producers. But in times gone by, they would have got their prosciutto much closer to home.
Up until the first half of the 20th century, most local families raised pigs and hung the meat to dry in the upper floors of their houses or from the kitchen ceiling – opening the windows to naturally air cure it. The next plate of prosciutto was never very far away!
While production is more formal these days, and is no longer carried out in people’s homes, many the of companies are still family-owned. And while production is now an important global business, traditional methods of salting, air curing and maturation are still employed.
The people who live in San Daniele del Friuli are rightly proud of their prosciutto. Not only is enjoying a few delicious slices part of their daily diet – most locals simply eat it by hand although it is also enjoyed wrapped around a grissini breadstick or paired with melon, combined with cheese and figs or pickled vegetables – the town’s most famous product is even celebrated in an annual weekend-long festival devoted to it, the Aria di Festa.
The festival officially started back in 1985 and during the weekend festivities, which take place each year in June, thousands of visitors flock to the town to enjoy the music, food tastings, talks and events that take place, from cooking demonstrations to slicing masterclasses.
The historic town square is the main hub of the festival, with tables laid out under the blue summer sky where festival-goers can enjoy the prosciutto from different local producers – some will have their favourite producer and will always buy their Prosciutto di San Daniele from there.
Families gather on the first evening of the festival, a Friday, to watch the ‘first slice’ ceremony, when celebrities, local dignitaries and producers take to the stage in the town square to cut the first slice from a thigh of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Once the first slice has been cut, the festival officially begins.
The festival also offers visitors the opportunity to visit many of the prosciutto producers, take a guided tour around their facilities and get the chance to buy their favourite prosciutto directly. And of course, other great Friulian produce is celebrated during the long weekend too, including wine and cheese.
But the history of celebrating the prosciutto of San Daniele goes back further than the launch of the Aria di Festa in 1985. There is evidence of a market taking place in San Daniele as far back as 1063, and in centuries gone by it wouldn’t have been unusual for people to pay for goods and services with prosciutto rather than use money.
This form of bartering would have been essential to the local economy and an old document event shows that, around the year 1490, one local person, who was embroiled in a dispute over fishing rights, even paid their lawyers in cured meat!
So you see, from ancient bartering to the daily modern meal and the annual festival devoted to it, Prosciutto di San Daniele really is a way of life in this beautiful and historic north-eastern Italian town.