Hannah Bellis visits the home of Prosciutto di San Daniele for sensational alpine scenery, wonderful local bars and the melt in the mouth ham that Italians want to keep to themselves…
What?s the best reason to visit a place? Every region of Italy has something to recommend itself. Visitors are drawn by the culture, the people,
the atmosphere and the cuisine. It?s definitely the food that gets a destination onto my travel list. Which is why San Daniele in the Province of Udine in Friuli-Venezia Giulia is such a hot spot for the gastronomic traveller ? it is the production centre of the world-renowned Prosciutto di San Daniele.
?You come to San Daniele for the ham. The ham and the bars. You enjoy the traditional bars packed with local people enjoying the prosciutto. And there?s a nice church too.? This is what Andrea had to say when I got chatting to him in one of the aforementioned bars, and he was totally right ? I was enjoying these things. Chances are any local you get talking to in San Daniele would tell you the same thing. The famous prosciutto of the region is central to so much of what goes on here. So many regions have specialities that residents will tell you are the best in the world, but the thing that really got my attention when it comes to this prosciutto is that many Italians from other regions besides Friuli-Venezia Giulia have told me it is the best in Italy. ?It is the very best prosciutto, it will melt in the mouth,? says Neopolitan Alessandro. ?We always have it at our table for the Christmas celebrations.?
A VINTAGE TECHNIQUE
Pork has been preserved in San Daniele del Friuli since Roman times. This region is situated at the base of the Po valley where the mild cool temperature and low humidity makes the perfect microclimate for drying the prosciutto. Cold winds from the north meet with warm breezes that arrive from the Adriatic Sea and mix together creating a natural steady microclimate. This is the reason that prosciutto production is so important in this region, and many producers still use the traditional method of salting and air drying the legs. In fact, those are the only ingredients found in any of the Prosciutto di San Daniele? ? pork and salt, with a paste of pork fat and seasoned flour used to seal the open end of the pork leg. After salting the legs are placed under pressure, which helps spread the lipid through the meat to give the prosciutto its trademark melt in the mouth texture ? as well as its distinctive guitar shape.
Of course in the modern age drying conditions can be artificially recreated all over the planet, but Prosciutto di San Daniele has been give PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which means it can only be produced in the original area. There are still producers here using the traditional air drying, such as The Prolongo factory in Viale Trento (www.prolongo.it). If you visit during the town?s colourful annual Aria di Festa in June they offer tours of the factory, and you can see the traditional techniques and different production stages in action. The festival brings the town?s streets and terraces alive with music, and keeps them packed with revellers 24 hours a day with a citywide schedule of events, degustation, music and gastronomic activities.
If you prefer a little sleep in your holidays, visit the city outside of fiesta time to?relax with friends over a plate of prosciutto, local cheese montasio and a glass of Friulano white wine in one of the bars while making the most of the steady?microclimate that makes ham production so successful here ? even in winter months it is relatively balmy so you can still enjoy a drink on the terraces if you have a coat on. The salting process traditionally begins by preserving meat slaughtered in the winter months of October to February, making use of the cold temperatures to leave the thighs in salt for 13 days before the drying stage begins. The entire process takes 13 months, so many thighs would have been ready to eat in December.?Perhaps this is why it makes it onto so many Italian tables at Christmas time?
TIME TO EXPLORE
I?ll have to take Andrea to task slightly? ? the prosciutto is delicious and the Cathedral of San Michele Arcangelo very pretty, but there are plenty of other things to recommend this place for those times when you are not feasting on prosciutto. He didn?t even mention the spectacular rose window of the Church of Sant?Antonio Abate, or the Porta Gemona, designed in 1579 in the old medieval castle walls ? you?ll stumble across these while walking around the town centre. The surrounding countryside is a walker?s delight, too, especially as the weather can be relied upon to stay amiable, so you never get too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer which is perfect if you like to set a stiff pace. Enjoy spectacular views across River Tagliamento, one of the least polluted rivers in the world. There are also some great medieval sites to visit, like the Castello di Tricano.
You?ll notice something else on your walks ? all the street signs are written in two languages, Italian, and? northern dialect, el Frioli. The dialect is still very important to the people here, and San Daniele was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1859. The puddings of the region ? cheesecakes, apple cake and custard tarts with sultanas are fantastic, and point towards their Germanic roots and recent Italianisation ? as does the slight rubberyness of the local montasio cheese! However, there?s no denying that Prosciutto di San Daniele has been taken to the heart of the Italian people. It is so loved that just 15 per cent of all that is produced is exported. You?ll find it for sale in Fotnum and Masons, Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Tescos ? but the best way to eat it is as Andrea would recommend ? in one of the traditional bars in San Daniele, packed with local people, overlooking the pretty Cathedral of San Michele Arcangelo.
By Plane & Train
The closest airports to San Daniele are Trieste if you are driving, or Venice Treviso if you are relying on public transport ? you can get a train from Treviso Centrale to nearby Pinzano, which is then just a short taxi ride from San Daniele. Ryanair flies to Trieste from Birmingham and Stansted, and to Venice Treviso from Bristol, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and Stansted.