A butcher can generally expect to get only two hams out of a single hog: both from the hind legs. But not Chef Craig Deihl, who works minor magic at his Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant Cypress to get two “miracle hams” from the front quarters.
Deihl, a self-taught butcher and charcuterie enthusiast, has perfected a method to remove the shoulder bone and then cure the meat to double his prosciutto production. The cut—called spalla or spallacia in Italy and palleta in Spain—is a rarity in the States, but is slowly gaining a cloven foot-hold among a select cabal of charcuterie zealots.
The difficulty of making spalla is in removing the tricky shoulder bone. “The challenge [with spalla] is to get it aged enough without it drying out,” says fellow meat magician Herb Eckhouse, who owns La Quercia, one of the few U.S. purveyors that offer spalla. “Getting the blade out cleanly [during butchering] and without exposing the meat with fissures, which leads to mold, is very hard.” La Quercia makes its hams from domestic acorn-fed heritage hogs, which they cure and then roll into loaves (as in, loaves and fishes?), though it is a specialty item not sold year-round.
Another barrier to spalla production is the fact that many domestic hogs are either too fatty or too meaty, but not both. Not a problem for Deihl, however, who has worked with local farmers to breed a special guinea hog. The fatted hogs he uses are both high-fat (2½ inches of fatback) and high-meat (upwards of 300 pounds): perfect for getting hams from the front legs.
“If I can get the bone out clean, I’ll get the beautiful fat and meat from the shoulder, which is completely different than the [hind leg] ham,” Deihl says. The increased blood flow through the front-leg muscles leads to a deeper flavor. “I haven’t found a pig that tastes as good when cured,” he says, noting the flavor differs from the famed Ibérico hams; these are sultrier, mustier. “The funkiness of the pig is what we’re looking for. My flavor profiles take longer to rival the Ibérico … but as they say, good things come to those who wait.”
Deihl’s path to becoming butcher extraordinaire—and the beginnings of his charcuterie program—came six year ago, after he found that his pig food costs were too high; he was losing too much when he fabricated the front legs. So he turned to the Internet. “It started out as a quest to teach myself to get rid of that collarbone more cleanly,” he says. “I looked for an online video on meat fabrication. YouTube is a great tool.”
The rest came through the usual trial and error. Deihl wasn’t happy with dumping boxes of salt onto his hams to cure them, so he devised a simple method to “baptize” his hams. Deihl dampens salt with a little water to make sand. He then coats the surface of the ham; the sandy mixture clings to the meat, and he can use less salt, thus reducing his overall food costs.
As with any good miracle worker, Deihl is not shy about spreading his craft among the locals, though he has yet to find the right miracle-worker to follow in his footsteps. “First and foremost I’m a chef, and then second I’m a charcutier and butcher,” he says. “I still don’t have a fulltime butcher, which will change very soon.”
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Spalla Ham Butchering Technique
1. Carefully cut away the collar bone from the meat. Avoid creating any puncture lines or abrasions, and be sure to remove any bone fragments from the meat.
2. Skin the ham and remove the gland (discard). Place the ham on a parchment-lined tray.
3. Form a “damp sand” from salt and water. Massage it into the meat (do not pack). Use more of the sand around the exposed ball joint and near the trotter. Store the ham in a cool, dry place. Make sure you regulate the temperature and humidity levels appropriately.
4. Re-apply the sand every two days for the first two weeks (flipping the ham during every application; drain and purge the tray each time you flip the ham), then every three days, until the 50-day mark.
5. Rinse off the salt, pat dry, and hang in a designated charcuterie curing room for 12 months.
Editor's Note: The below video features both prosciutto and spalla hams.