Berkshire Prosciutto: Heritage and Biodiversity

Over the last 30 years, American consumers have sought leaner pork. But breeding animals with less fat has contributed to a lack of biodiversity. A family-run meat business has brought full fat back to its prosciutto so that itís more flavorful. And theyíve also played a small part in restoring biodiversity by using what's known as a heritage breed of hog. The Allegheny Front's Hal B. Klein has this profile.

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HOST: Over the last 30 years, American consumers have sought leaner pork. But breeding animals with less fat has contributed to a lack of biodiversity. A family-run meat business has brought full fat back to its prosciutto so that it's more flavorful. And they've also played a small part in restoring biodiversity by using whatís known as a heritage breed of hog. The Allegheny Front's Hal B. Klein has this profile.

KLEIN: Up a set of creaky stairs in Pittsburgh's food lovers' paradise known as the Strip District is Rina Edward's childhood bedroom.

EDWARDS We're going to go up first floor on the right, we'll make a right.

KLEIN: When Edwards was a baby, a mobile of sausages-- no joke--hung over her head. Nobody lives in the building now. But still hanging from the ceiling are the family's pride and joy--hand-made and naturally cured sausages and hams.

KLEIN: There are a lot of prosciutto.

EDWARDS: Theyíre at different stages of aging right now. (Inhales) OK. (Inhales) New prosciutto, young prosciutto, prosciutto that needs to age...this is the aroma in this room. You have a young mold. Everything that is dry cured and aged in this plant is aged with mold. Americans, they don't want to see mold, they don't want to know about it. But we are so happy when you (inhales) come in, you have this aroma we know the mold is perfect.

KLEIN: Edwards is now president of The Parma Sausage Company. They have been curing meat in their Strip District building since 1954. That's when her father, Luigi Spinabella, decided to make a business out of what had been a family tradition that has its roots in Corsica, Italy. The prosciutto she's talking about isn't ordinary prosciutto. It comes from a Berkshire hog, which is prized for its high fat content. It adds flavor and texture that canít be found in a typical commercial hog.


KLEIN: Rina's daughter Erin Shumacher elaborates.

SHUMACHER: My dad always said "as soon as I saw the hams I knew, this is the ham that the old-timers I worked with talked about." And all the good things came along with thatóthe way they're raised; you can trace their heritage back. The marbleization of the meat, just how they're not pumped with steroids to grow them faster to rush anythingÖtheyíre fed a nice diet and theyíre humanely slaughtered.

KLEIN: The Berkshire hog is a heritage breed rarely raised in the United States. Its history traces back to England, where it's been popular since the English Civil War. In America, starting in the 1950s, raising livestock changed. Most hogs arenít raised in small numbers on family farms anymore. They're grown by the thousands in factory feedlots. Because of consumer demand for the leaner meat, and the need to use hogs that are able to survive confined conditions, diversity can lose out. The Berkshire hog requires more open space. Jeanette Beranger of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy says it's important to re-expand the gene pool, and though the Berkshire and other animals don't fit into the current model that produces cheap food, they have important benefits.

BERANGER: The pigs tend to be a lot hardier, more disease resistant, you have fewer birthing problems. You have animals that can handle a challenging environment more effectivelyÖAnd we're in a world facing global climate change and it's these animals that are going to be able to adapt more quicklyÖthe great thing about this adaptability is that you get Mother Nature to work for you and she works for cheap.

KLEIN: Finding Berkshire hogs has sometimes been a challenge for Parma Sausage. Beranger cites high feed prices and access to local meat processing facilities as major impediments to expanded heritage hog rearing. Parma buys their hogs from the Midwest. That's because Pennsylvania farmers aren't raising Berkshire pigs in the quantity or with the consistency that the company needs. Beranger says this is something that's changing, but not very quickly.

BERANGER: It takes time, slowly it's building, you've got pockets of people that can do that, but it's not the norm.

KLEIN: Parma hopes that eventually the company can buy some hogs from a farm closer to Pittsburgh. On the ground floor of the building where they cure the meat, Parma has a storefront. There counter worker thinly slices the prosciutto for waiting customers. For Edwards, it's not just meat but a link to the past.

EDWARDS: The aromas can transport you back to these great times these people used to have, and they say they lost that because they donít do that anymoreÖ "Rina, I thank you. This brings back my grandfather. This is the taste I used to have growing up, and you brought it back to me."

KLEIN: Edwards is passing on those memories, and a tradition of heritage, to a new generation. As I leave she's about to sit down to a plate of the family's prosciutto with her grandchildren. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Hal B. Klein