Prosciutto crudo is a specialty Italian cured meat made from a leg of pork, covered in sea salt, hung upside-down in a dark, well-ventilated environment and aged for one to two years. It is sliced thinly for use in sandwiches, paired with cantaloupes or figs, used a pizza topping, or cooked in various Italian dishes. In Italy, prosciutto, or ham, is further specified as prosciutto crudo or prosciutto cotto. Prosciutto crudo is cured from its raw form and is never actually cooked over heat– it is simply aged in salt. Alternatively, prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) is made from the legs of prosciutto that might not necessarily have met the highest standards of prosciutto crudo.
Prosciutto crudo is usually purchased at the salumerie, where it is possible to specify which portion of the leg you would like your prosciutto to be cut from according to its use. For example, the center cut is usually the best quality (also processed and sold individually as culatello), for eating on its own or paired with specific fruits, while the meat closer to the bone might be used for cooking purposes.
Prosciutto is produced in the Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Lombardy regions of Italy. There are subtle taste differences in prosciutto that originates in the various regions of Italy, as it is strongly influenced by the environment in which the pigs are raised, and what they are fed. In the main prosciutto-producing city of Parma, located in the Emilia-Romagna region, pigs feed on a specific blend of grains, cereals, and whey used in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production, which results in a fragrant aroma and rich flavors in the prosciutto.
Like many other traditional foods in Italy, prosciutto consortiums follow scrupulous procedural, ingredient, and branding guidelines. Additives such as sugar, smoke, or nitrites, are not allowed for use in members of the prosciutto consortiums, so the signature taste is derived from the meat itself, and how it is cured in a perfectly temperature and humidity controlled room. When the prosciutto is mature, an inspector takes a sharp, long needle made of horse tibia (horse bone) and pierces the center of the prosciutto– its readiness is based on smell. If prosciutto producers does not comply with such procedures, its products are not labeled with the “D.O.P.” (Protected Designation of Origin) logo, as a signal to consumers that the prosciutto is not up to the strict standards of the consortium.
Information from: http://www.prosciuttodiparma.com/eng/