[dropcap size=small]P[/dropcap]erched on high stools at the bar of Rome’s famed Ristorante Salumeria Roscioli, we sip our Chianti with anticipation. While we wait for our order to arrive, staff carry past enticing plates of homemade buffalo mozzarella and bowls of La Matriciana O Amatriciana (pasta tossed with tomato sauce, crispy pig cheek, and Pecorino Romano cheese), Pesce Sparda (carpaccio of smoked swordfish), and Le Polpette della Tradizione Romana (meatballs with tomato sauce, smoked ricotta and chestnut polenta).

Each of these dishes earns a moment of silence from diners as it is served, admired, and then broken into with fork or spoon. A look of contentment, and then it’s back to conversation in that lively, lilting manner that is so quintessentially Italiano.

While the plates being served around us look inviting, our sights are set on something quite particular. Roscioli is known not only for its close-to-perfect pastas but also for its stand-out selection of cured meats, or salumi. We’re here for a very specific kind: the highly prized prosciutto made from Italy’s black pigs.

While Spain’s jamon Iberico gets all the glory, Italy, too, has exquisite hams made from its own native breeds of black pig. Long loved by the food cognoscenti within Italy, these hams are finally earning a wider appreciation.

Italians have always taken their salumi seriously. Almost every meal eaten out, be it lunch or dinner, will start with a platter of air-dried cold cuts. But as diners around the world increasingly focus on local, seasonal produce and elevate culinary tradition over mass-produced food, interest in artisanal products is booming. Italy’s black pig hams are becoming a sought-after delicacy.

While Spain’s world-famous jamon comes from black pigs native to the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal, Italy’s varieties of black pig prosciutto (ham made from the hind leg that is air-dried for many months) come from a number of different breeds across the country, but particularly in Parma, Italy’s ham-happy heartland. Exactly how many breeds of black pig there are in Italy is unknown, but a growing number of farmers and chefs are working to protect and revive their own local living repositories of culinary tradition.

“The black pig is a part of our Italian heritage, like many other things in Italy, such as a medieval church or a painting,” says chef, farmer, restaurateur and Italy’s top salumi producer, Massimo Spigaroli.

“The black pig was the ‘family pig’, rustic and strong, and able to feed himself in the forest. Black pigs were substituted in the 1960s by the new more productive breeds of white pig from Britain and The Netherlands, which were more adapted for industrial use as they grow faster and have more offspring. They also have less fat but more pink meat, especially on their huge hind legs.”

Chef Spigaroli is raising Nera di Parma pigs, the only breed of black pig native to the Parma region, on his historic farm estate, Antica Corte Pallavicina, by the Po River. The estate also has a 14th-century castle that the Spigaroli brothers have turned into a six-room boutique hotel. Here is also where they age Parmesan cheese, make wine, and grow vegetables for their two restaurants on the estate: the traditional osteria, Al Cavallino Bianco, and the contemporary fine dining restaurant, Antica Corte.

Spigaroli’s Nera di Parma pigs live mostly free range, hunting out acorns and wild grass in the woods. They also feed them house-produced cereals and beans. They slaughter when the pigs are more than two years old. This ancient breed is known for its red marbled meat.

Parma is famed around the world for its hams, whether from white pigs or black. Chef Spigaroli says it’s the region’s climate that is ideal for salumi production.

“Parma is perfect for producing ham because of its climate. The hills of Langhirano are protected by mountains, and the region’s nearness to the Tyrrhenian sea makes the air ideal for ageing the meat,” he says.

Although prosciutto di Parma is the most well known, it’s not the only variety of ham made in the region.

“We get all the typical Parmesan cold cuts from black pigs, including prosciutto, but also culatello, salami, coppa, and so on,” says Francesco De Vecchi, of restaurant and salumeria Parmaroma, near to Rome’s ancient Pantheon.

“Production methods are traditional, the pigs are very rare, and so the prices are very expensive.”

At Il Sopasso, a chic restaurant in Rome’s Prati neighbourhood just a 10-minute walk from St Peter’s Square, the selection of black pig prosciutto varies according to the producer’s availability and to season, but regularly features Suino Nero dei Nebrodi from Sicily, Bazzone from Garfagnana in Tuscany made from the local grey-haired pig, Cinta Senese from Tuscany, and Mora Romagnola from Emilia-Romagna.

“Interest in black pig prosciutto has been rapidly growing over the last few years, so we keep up to date with the latest developments,” says the manager at Il Sorpasso.  “The method of production makes all the difference ­– as it does with all hams – and we always turn to small producers. Small distribution involves small quantities and better quality; in general, you get more serious and healthier products.”

Black pig prosciutto differs according to species of pig and how they are reared, and the ageing process ­– all of which may be controlled by DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), Italy’s seal of quality for regional heritage products. Prosciutto is aged for different periods, but as general guide, smaller prosciutto from 7kgs to 9kgs are cured for around 24 months, while 12kg to 15kg hams may be aged for 36 to 40 months.

The longer the ageing, the softer the flavour and texture, and so the more prized and pricey. While black pig prosciutto can be used in cooking, eating it simply, adoringly on its own, is perhaps the finest way to enjoy it, according to Biancamaria di Fede, manager of Roscioli. The restaurant and salumeria is located just a short walk from Campo de’ Fiore, a glorious outdoor fresh produce market that is also a must-visit for any foodie visiting Rome.

“The best way to enjoy a fine prosciutto is as a cold cut with a very nice glass of wine,” says di Fede. “For black pig prosciutto, opt for red wine, medium bodied, or a very dry white.”


Culatello, The Prime Ham

The holy grail of Italy’s hams is culatello. Meaning “little ass” in Italian, culatello is made from the choicest cut of a pig’s rump. Only a handful of producers in Italy’s Parma region are allowed to produce this rare and very costly salumi.

Massimo Bottura, creative genius behind the kitchen that earned top spot in Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants last year [2016], Osteria Francescana, describes it as: “It isn’t just meat, it’s myth.”

Only 30,000 culatello hams are produced each year, in comparison to almost 10 million prosciutti di Parma. It’s rarity and high cost, as well as its musky-sweet flavour and velvety texture, makes it probably Italy’s most sought-after artisanal product.

Massimo Spigaroli, considered Italy’s top culatello producer, slowly ages his 5,000 or so culatelli a year in the humid breezes coming off the Po River. The production process needs constant monitoring, intuition and patience, and takes up to two years.

The finest of these hams – only 600 or so – are from his small herd of Nera di Parma, the only black pig breed native to the Parma region. Chef Spigaroli is reviving this heirloom breed on his farm.

Chef Spigaroli is also largely to thank for ensuring culatello production continues to very exacting standards. It was only in the 1990s that culatello gained DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status through the lobbying efforts of Spigaroli and other passionate culatello producers. Chef Spigaroli also headed the Culatello di Zibello Consortium, which details a more stringent set of requirements, to enforce centuries-old production methods.

These are the marks to look out for when sampling culatello.