There were two things on offer pretty much every day during my hiking trip in the Dolomites: Strudel and Speck. Considering I don’t generally have a sweet tooth, there were days I passed on the Strudel (oh, the horror!), but I never missed an opportunity to indulge in Speck.
Speck is a smoked and cured ham from the province of Alto Adige (also called South Tyrol) in northern Italy, bordering Austria. The meat comes from the hind leg of a pig (as does Prosciutto) and is rubbed with spices, such as juniper, rosemary, salt, pepper, and bay leaf, and dry cured for three weeks before being smoked and aged.
After a little research, I found out that the smoking process is very gentle for Speck, and is done at carefully controlled temperatures so that the meat remains sweet while taking on the mild smoky flavor. Smoking takes place over several months for a few hours at a time. This is some high maintenance ham!
Speck ages for six months in ventilated rooms that let the Alpine air in, helping to mellow and balance the flavors. If you’ve breathed in that Alpine air yourself, you can just imagine it soothing the meat and making it taste better. Speck has an “IGP” (Indication of Geographic Protection) for Alto Adige, which means that how it’s made is carefully regulated.
Just like the Dolomites, Speck combines the traditions of Northern Europe, where hams are more heavily smoked, with the Mediterranean, where hams are subtler in flavor. It’s truly the best of both worlds. (To eliminate any cultural confusion, in German Speck generally refers to pork fat, or lard, and is not the same as Italian IGP Speck.)
Speck is insanely delicious, and can be found at restaurants and rifugios* all over the Dolomites. I had it simply sliced thin with rustic mountain bread and served with cheeses and vegetables, on pizza, cooked in pasta and risotto, and in the heavenly bread dumplings called Canederli. It adds much more flavor than Prosciutto, but doesn’t overwhelm as much as bacon. Believe it or not, you can find it on Amazon, and I am sure you can purchase it at specialty stores in your area. I myself am dreaming of adding it to a mushroom frittata next weekend. Buon Appetito!
*Side Note: Rifugi are mountain huts, mostly owned by the Italian hiking organization (Club Alpine Italiano) and family run, where you can stop in for an espresso or a beer, sit down for a hearty meal, or reserve a bed for the night. Most are only accessible via foot. These are not your average base lodge cafeterias. The food here is varied, and you’re sure to get a soulful, satisfying meal and friendly Alpine hospitality.