Bringing Home the Bacon

They’re a match made in heaven: South Tyrol and smoked ham. Is this a romance for the ages?

  • March 2017

  • Reading time: 6'

    Reading time: 6'

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Bringing Home the Bacon

They’re a match made in heaven: South Tyrol and smoked ham. Is this a romance for the ages?

As is often the case on a beautiful evening such as this one, as I watch the sun disappear behind the closest mountain, I set everything aside for a moment and exhale loudly. The rumbling of my stomach is the first to break the silence and I suddenly find myself longing for a bit of hardened bread, smoked-dry sausage and smoked ham. If you’ve grown up here, like I have, this is the South Tyrolean trinity, the ultimate combination to satisfy hunger. It’s a snack with tradition and a touch of nostalgia, one I like to both taste and smell.

Like all good things in South Tyrol, smoked ham is a hybrid, uniting the air-drying arts from the south with time-honoured smoking methods of the north. Today, I’m on my way to Pfitscher’s specialty meats in Postal/Burgstall to learn first hand from master butcher and owner Lukas Pfitscher. As I set foot inside, the sweet aroma of smoked meat prevails.

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Swapping the Apron for a Tie

Instead of standing behind a counter as I might have expected, I find Lukas hard at work before his computer. After all, he soon explains, there are deliveries to sort out, raw materials to purchase and international trade fairs to organise. Surprisingly, the responsibilities of a butcher are no longer part of his daily routine. 

Pfitscher Speciality Meats

During the 1970s, the demand for smoked ham increased along with the rise in tourism. In 1980, Lukas’ father, Gottfried Pfitscher, opened a one-man operation in Merano/Meran. Rooting his business in the community, he rented space in various wine cellars and high-ceiling basements to store his products. Then around the turn of the century, he acquired an operation in Postal. By 2012, expansion continued unabated. The family-owned enterprise, in which his mother Annelies and his brother Michael also work, has tripled in size in the last decade. In 2017, Pfitscher products were recognised for excellence by the Guida dell’Espresso food and wine critics. 

The Family Secret

“Though we’ve expanded greatly, we still insist on traditional methods,” Lukas explains to me as we don hygienic aprons before entering the butchery. It doesn’t take long for me to understand Lukas’ message. We travel down a long corridor past many doors and rooms that house the production, smoking and packaging operations. The scope of the facility isn’t the only surprise; many of the operations are also mechanised. “Our people still make the difference,” Lukas assures me as we continue past many smiling faces.

Surely the other difference maker is the secret family recipe that has been handed down for generations. Salt (as a preservative) and pepper are always used, explains Lukas. Then it’s up to each butcher to decide how much marjoram, garlic, juniper or even pimento constitutes the ideal mixture of herbs and spices. “Pimento is for Lebkuchen and not for meat,” says Lukas wryly. “I can assure you that such a spice is not the secret ingredient around here.” 

Smoked ham production in four steps

1) Salt and a mixture of herbs and spices are rubbed over the leg of pork.
2) During the curing process, the meat is stored at low temperature. A great deal of water is removed.
3) Next, the meat is cold smoked (up to 20° C) with low-resin wood, usually beech wood.
4) During the maturation process, the meat loses approximately 35 percent of its weight. After about 22 weeks, the smoked ham is ready for packaging.

Peeking into the maturation chamber where the final phase is underway, I notice something odd as I approach the dry mature legs of ham. The pieces are covered with a strange white layer. As if reading my mind, Lukas smiles reassuringly. “Most people are unaware that a harmless layer of mould is an essential component of the tastiest smoked hams.” At the end of the process, this flavour enhancer is washed away. I never knew that smoked ham had something in common with aged cheese!

Right where he belongs

Though Lukas once harboured academic aspirations, he’s glad he remained with the family business rather than studying at university. As the founder of the business, his father still plays an integral role and Lukas enjoys working by his side, comfortable to take over the more modern challenges like marketing and administration. And the numbers look good! “If they’re to be believed, I’ll soon be able to hire another new employee.” And that’s good business, also for the local economy. 

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Too Few Pigs

But where does all the pork come from? “If we want to eat meat at least once per week, then there simply aren’t enough pigs raised in South Tyrol,” explains Lukas. It is for this reason that pork certified by Speck Alto Adige PGI is imported. In fact, three out of four pigs come from Germany. For the ham to receive the distinction “farmer’s smoked ham (Bauernspeck),” however, the pigs must have been raised in South Tyrol. 

PGI Certification

PGI certifies the quality of agricultural and food products from the region independent of the village where it originated. In order to receive certification, however, at least one step of the production process must take place in the region of provenance.

Farmer’s Smoked Ham

A portion of South Tyrolean Smoked Ham PGI is designated as “farmer’s smoked ham (Bauernspeck).” To receive this designation, the pigs must have been raised, fattened and butchered in South Tyrol. This comprises around 800 pigs on an annual basis. As an Alpine region of extraordinary beauty, South Tyrol relies heavily on tourism and is therefore not ideal for housing and raising a large number of pigs. This fact helps to explain why some pigs are imported, while a select few are still traditionally raised and butchered here in South Tyrol.

After spending time with Lukas, I’ve become curious and want to learn more about South Tyrol’s most popular product. Afterwards, I meet up with Matthias Messner, Director of the Speck Alto Adige Consortium, at the Vögele inn in Bolzano.

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Is smoked ham also produced outside of South Tyrol?
Matthias Messner: There are similar smoked ham varieties produced throughout Europe that differ in taste from South Tyrolean smoked ham. The distinct, subtle smoky flavour is characteristic here, however. In addition, only about one third of the smoked ham produced in South Tyrol meets PGI quality criteria to be named “Speck Alto Adige PGI”.

Only a fraction of the pigs actually come from South Tyrol. How stringent is the quality control of imported pigs?
By relying on random sampling, we are able to ensure that our suppliers meet our standards. Quality is paramount and this is reflected in the treatment of the animals.

Store smoked ham in the fridge

Smoked ham should be wrapped in a moist towel or stored between two dinner plates. Avoid storing smoked ham near strong-smelling foods like Gorgonzola cheese, as the ham has a tendency to take in smells. Smoked ham requires moisture and air and therefore storing it in a bag is not recommended. The ham should be consumed within a few days after opening as it dries out quickly.

Have the requirements for smoked ham changed in the last few years? 
Speck Alto Adige contains numerous proteins and vitamins, which are a part of a balanced Mediterranean diet. The desire on the part of consumers for convenience and quick food preparation times has led to advancements in smoked ham production. At the same time, modern consumers care about more than just taste, they also care about their health. It is for this reason that smoked ham is increasingly enjoyed along with fruit and other elements of a balanced diet.

A strange combination...
Scientific studies performed by nutritionists have demonstrated that the body more readily takes in certain substances from smoked ham when eaten in combination with fruit. We recommend that athletes enjoy smoked ham along with pineapple, because the body more readily absorbs proteins. The combination of bananas and apricots with smoked ham helps the body to absorb vitamins and may prevent high blood pressure and water retention. 

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I decide to heed Matthias’ advice and pop a grape into my mouth along with a piece of smoked ham. The taste combination is intense, fruity and well rounded. As I enjoy this new take on my favourite regional snack, I think back to my conversation with Lukas Pfitscher and everything I have learned about production, taste and the right spices. More than ever before, I’m a believer: South Tyrol and smoked ham, they belong together.  

Text: Katja Schroffenegger
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photos: Ivo Corrà
Video: Frabiato Film