Recently I visited an Italian producer famed for producing some of the finest pork products that Tuscany has to offer.  The company, founded by Piero Piacenti who was a butcher by trade, is nestled in the valley below the picturesque town of San Gimignano. The company is well known in the European markets, enjoying a 27% market share of the Tuscan ham market while leading the pre-sliced market with 37% market share, is poised to take the USA by storm with the help of Atalanta.

To understand the story behind the company, you need to look no further than it’s surroundings.  Perched high on a hill overlooking the factory is the quintessential Tuscan medieval town of San Gimignano, a Unesco World Heritage Cultural Site that hosts three million tourists each year.  Tourists who desire to re-create the food experiences they discovered during their travels, and then share among friends, often influence the demand for specialty foods that lend to their commercial success.  After visiting the romantic town of San Gimignano, so steeped in history, one is likely to return home with a lasting memory of your authentic food experiences, which is certainly going to include the uniquely seasoned ham and salami served in the region.

There are three PDO prosciutto’s produced in Italy.  We have been enjoying two of them, San Danielle and Parma, for years in this country.  There is a third special ham probably not as well known in our country since it was previously scarce here, but Atalanta is about to change all of that with the introduction of Prosciutto Toscano artisanally produced by Piacenti.

To understand how this ham is different from all others, you must consider the history of the Tuscany region of Italy and the prominent position of the town of San Gimignano in medieval times. The town was located on the spice route, which was essential to the flow of goods to Europe.  The town also contributed to the spice supply by producing one of the most prestigious and sought after spices of all, saffron.  Saffron was the currency the town traded with to secure their own supply of spices from the Far East as well as wealth.  In fact, the medieval towers that characterize the hilltop towns of Tuscany was a sign of wealth, leading one neighbor to build a higher tower than the next, and the many towers dotting this town make it the Manhattan of medieval times.

The ample supply of the spices in Tuscany “rubbed off” into their food preparations, and is evident in the flavor of Prosciutto Toscano, which happens to be rubbed with premium Tellicherry black pepper and wild juniper berries in addition to salt.  The legs of ham that come from the pigs bred in Tuscany are also unique in that they have a wider crown than other PDO hams, which provides more surface area for salting and seasoning, allowing the spicing to really permeate the pork.  The resulting flavor has a more complex flavor profile that makes the ham stand out from all the others in the world.  The ham doesn’t get better with age, so there is a perfect preserving period that coincides with a five percent weight loss of the ham leg that ranges from twelve to eighteen months depending upon the season and level of humidity in the air.
Touring the curing facilities and watching the pork products being prepared and roasted, leaves on in awe of the level of the care that goes into the production of it’s food products.  They have been successful in modernizing the production process that is necessary to be competitive in the market while keeping in place the artisanal, hands-on, nature of the product that maintains the traditional flavors of Tuscany.  The fatting of the prosciutto, which is often done by machine in order to save cost, is still done by hand at Piacenti because they claim that feeling the product while rubbing in the salt and pepper affords them the opportunity to detect abnormalities in a ham during the curing process, before it goes to market. The recently constructed clean room, which is essential for FDA approval, also lends to the 6-month shelf life of the products.  The neatly packaged slices of ham even pass across a metal detector before being packed in cases for delivery to detect any traces of metal that may be present in the case that one of the slicers were damaged during production.

Atalanta will exclusively import the Prosciutto Tuscano along with cooked porchetta, roasted ham, and loin and that are equally spectacular and contain no nitrates.  The roasted loin is brined for 48 hours in rosemary, black and white pepper, garlic, Grecian laurel, sage, and juniper berries before being slow-roasted in dry ovens for 14 hours.  The loin contains only 4% fat, making it as lean as turkey.  The Piacenti Tuscan roasted prosciutto is also brined in herbs and spices before being slow-roasted.  While many hams available in the supermarket deli in our country often have between 20-40 percent water added, this ham has only 20 percent water added before slow roasting which causes it to shed 5 percent of the water during the cooking process, yielding a ham with an exceptional texture to go along with distinctive flavor.  The roasted porchetta is roasted for 10 hours after being cured for 48 hours in brine that also includes white fennel.  All of this care, flavor, and a 6-month shelf life…thank you Italy!

David Spencer