The World Famous Karst Dry-cured Ham

Pršut. Photo: Dean Dubokovič

The Slovenian Karst is a very special, lyrical landscape, spreading over the south-western part of the country near the border with Italy. It is the meeting place of many special regional features of Slovenia. The immense Nanos plateau and the distant Carnic ridges to the north indicate a passage to the Alps; low hills to the east and south indicate its closeness to the sea; and the openness of the sky towards the west gives a hint of the Friulian Marches extending deep into Italy. This region is also home to strong winds like the Bora, which blows briskly from the cold Alps towards the warm Mediterranean, and gives the distinct taste to the Karst dry-cured ham – pršut.

The Karst is simply fantastic. The strong winds have sculpted the stony landscape of sharp edges, limestone caves and the rare greenness of pine trees (the dominant coniferous trees in this part of Europe). Only strong people, full of energy and optimism, have successfully adapted to the rough environment. Many have emigrated. But, the Karst today is a greener, gentler landscape due to extensive afforestation. Nevertheless, its inhabitants have remained in love with their region, whose outstanding wild beauty has made it one of the most popular parts of Slovenia. In addition to the Bora winds, two of the most prominent characteristics of the region are the famous Karst Teran wine and Karst dry-cured ham.

Authentic taste from the specific Karstic climate

Photo: Tomo Jeseničnik

Although there are many types of air-dried ham in Slovenia, the Karst ham is the best known. Generally speaking, pršut is a dried pork ham. Its authentic taste comes from the specific Karstic climate. The fresh hams are cleaned and salted, and then left to dry.

There are different ways of salting: some producers salt the meat in special tubs, while others dry salt it, so that the meat is exposed to the air from the very beginning and dries gradually. The latter procedure, a more recent one, is used by the majority of producers. It must be carried out at low temperatures and under suitable conditions because at this stage the meat must begin to dry properly. After some time the salt is washed off. The ham is then pressed into its characteristic flattened shape, which removes the last natural juices, so that it becomes compact and prepared for drying and curing. This stage is the longest, taking from 9 to 15 months or even longer, depending on the size of the ham, and demands constant attention. If everything is done properly, after a year or more, we have a meat product distinguished for its excellent aroma and flavour a true gourmet delicacy which almost melts in the mouth.

Pršut is becoming increasingly popular

To prevent forgeries, the Karst dry-cured ham makers, who have invested a lot of money and knowledge into developing the proper manufacture of dry-cured ham, joined in a consortium to apply for the protected geographical indication (PGI) classification. For a ham to be classified as pršut, all processes of preparation, including salting, must take place on the Karst Plateau, as its climatic conditions are necessary for an authentic product.

More rigorous common standards will provide for a more uniform method of preparation, which may lose pršut some of its originality, but the quality and taste of the dry-cured ham are so recognisable that no other product except for the genuine pršut will be able to be marketed under this trademark.

Because of the huge demand for this exceptional product both in Slovenia and abroad, the Karst dry-cured ham is mainly produced in mass production plants, but many small farmers also keep the tradition alive.