Produced for the first time around a century and a half ago, it became famous around the world, but after the Second World War, the specialty became almost impossible to find here at home. Today, the authentic Bohemian recipe is enhanced in Italy by the Trieste delicatessen sellers
Rosy-coloured, with darker and lighter shades, a thin layer of fat under its golden skin and an intense smoky aroma. Prague ham, which is called Pražská šunka in Czech, is one of the prestigious food products of the golden city. Although it is listed in several menus around the world, until just a few years ago it was almost impossible to find in the Bohemian metropolis and it is only quite recently that its great value has been rediscovered.
The craft of salting and preserving pork was already used by the Celts during ancient times and was then adopted by the Romans. However, the first Prague ham dates back to 1857. At the time, the delicatessen seller of Prague, František Zvěřina, tried to pickle and then smoke an entire pork leg, including the bone, whereas previously it used to be divided into three parts. The innovation was greatly appreciated and this type of ham, passing from Karlovy Vary and Dresden, then spread to other big cities of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Vienna, Budapest and became known as “Prague Ham”, simply because it had been produced for the first time in the capital. But nobody bothered to protect its name or recipe, therefore, its distribution became increasingly widespread, because many were those who copied it, both domestic and foreign competitors.
One of the first was Antonín Chmel, a name to bear in mind for several reasons. First of all because he started its industrial production on a large scale. And in 1879, he founded his own company in U Zvonařky street, in the district of Vinohrady, where the Hotel Le Palais stands today. A company that eventually became famous all over Europe. The secret of his success was achieved thanks to the careful selection of meat and its particular manufacturing process, which focused on detail. One of the characteristics that makes this ham rather unique is the so called “Prague cut”, that handed down from generation to generation, has maintained the original aspect of the pork leg. Chmel used lean ham, which did not exceed 5 kg in weigh. Being inspired by the production of beer, he strongly believed that the fundamental aspect of it all was the right temperature of the room in which the meat was stored for the salting and drying operations. The final smoking phase, using beech-wood had to be done slowly up to 8-12 hours and the main purpose of the smoke was simply to add a certain fragrance to the meat, without affecting its aroma.
Thanks to the high quality achieved, the factory quickly prospered and Chmel, who became the official supplier to the court of the Austrian Rulers, was also able to export his sausages to America. Another of his merits was his idea of using packaging to prolong the storage life of the product, in order to send it overseas.
If during the inter-war period it had been one of the leading food products of the industrial agribusiness of a united Czechoslovakia, at the end of the second war, his recipe was almost forgotten. Variants of the original product could be found on the market, but mainly preserves and semi-preserves and then at the end of the 1970s the boneless version. Prague ham was gradually replaced by stewed ham, covered by a layer of aspic and packed in classic oval shaped pouches, that may be found in every Czech supermarket. One of the producers is Masna Studená, part of the Agrofert holding company that is owned by Andrej Babiš.
Its revival belongs to the last decade. After evoking the admiration of visitors to the Czech House at the last Winter Olympics in Turin, it is now listed in the menus of many pubs and festivals throughout the Czech Republic, served hot or cold in thick slices, accompanied by bread.
However, it is rather curious that there is little precise data available on the consumption of Prague ham. We can only make a rough analysis and estimate the total consumption of meat. From the available in 2011 data, in the Czech Republic, the average consumption of meat per person in a year was 78.6 kg, almost twice that of Europe, which was 42 kg; pork amounted to 42.1 kg with many products being imported from abroad. In 2009, around 124 tons of ham and pork shoulder came from Germany and 121 from Slovakia, that rose to 177 the following year. In 2010, also 314 tonnes of prepared and preserved pork were imported from France and 467 from Germany.
Perhaps this lack of data is due to the fact that there is still no protection for the product. In 2004, Tomáš Karpíšek, the Czech restaurateur and owner of the “Ambiente” restaurant group, verified that there was no registered trademark for Prague ham. With the help of a former employee of Chmel, he revisited the old recipe. “I do not intend to harm other people’s business, but simply wish to produce ham according to the original tradition”, he reassured his competitors. “My main goal is to encourage the best chefs to include it in their menus, as they do with Parma ham”. He was granted a trademark by the patent office in 2007, but it was withdrawn three years later. The Czech Meat Processors’ Association had opposed it. Thus, the term “Prague ham” cannot be the sole exclusivity of a restaurateur, because it is considered collectively as a generic product.
The same association, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, asked the EU to recognize it as a “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” (TSG). On the one hand, to renew a tradition that was born in the nineteenth century, on the other to establish a unique recipe and clear rules of production. Rules that everyone has to follow in order to use the name Prague ham. Objections were raised by Italy, Germany, Austria and Slovakia, because their delicatessen sellers use this term when they refer to sacked food, prepared according to a different recipe and because they do not utilize the “Prague cut”, which is specific. But a final decision has not been reached yet, because there is still disagreement with the Slovaks, who for seventy years have shared the same tradition with the Czechs.
For now, those who don’t know the real taste of Prague ham may do so in Trieste, Berlin, America or in Australia. The Trieste delicatessen sellers are proud of being among the few who produce Prague ham according to the authentic 1857 recipe. Trieste has inherited, especially at a gastronomic level, many traditions that were assimilated over the centuries while they belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Although its production today is identifiable with Venezia Giulia, it first made its appearance in Milan, where in 1883, the Bohemian Francesco Peck, who introduced himself as a “Prague delicatessen seller”, had opened a shop of cured meat, done according to German tradition: char-grilled sausages and ham. He soon became the official supplier to the Royal Household and gained many prestigious customers around the country. For his food merits, in 1910, he was nominated Knight of the Crown of Italy.
In Trieste they had already been writing about Prague ham in cookbooks and travel guides since the beginning of the century. It is believed that the Bohemian maids may have brought this typical central European dish into the homes where they worked and that it eventually became part of the Trieste Easter lunch, together with Pinza cake. In the buffets and taverns of the regional capital it is also a classic morning snack. The Buffet da Pepi is a historical place in Trieste, that is often full of tourists and local people, where ham is sliced with a knife according to customers’ requests and served hot, accompanied by black bread, mustard and grated radish. You may find it next to other specialties, such as porcine or Trieste ham, wrapped in bread crust.
Prague ham is recognized as a Traditional Food and Agriculture Product of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Indeed, “it deserves the title of “cotto di Trieste” in view of the centuries-old tradition that binds it to the Venezia Giulia territory”, says Vladimir Dukcevich, CEO of the Principe Group, the producer of Prosciutto di San Daniele. The only Italian group to have launched sliced ham wrapped in new oval packages – the innovation that was unknown in Italy and that was developed by Chmel almost 150 years ago.
by Sabrina Salomoni