One of the most thrilling things about making the third series of my TV show has been meeting so many clever people who are crafting good, richly layered lives around their passions. Winemaker Duncan Forsyth is one such person, and it was a treat to visit him to shoot this episode. Not only does he create beautiful wines, but in his spare time (not that anyone who runs a winery ever gets any spare time!), he produces the most delicious prosciutto. It’s not a commercial operation but each year five or six pigs are processed and the leg hams turned into prosciutto for his friends and family.
When Duncan and his business partner John bought the winery they had a clear vision that they wanted to convert it to organic production. As part of the conversion process they started to accumulate animals – cows, chickens, sheep – and they were given a couple of pigs. “Three months, three weeks and three days later another 10 were born so we learnt our first lesson about pig husbandry!” says Duncan. A self-confessed foodie, he was interested in the idea of making salami so he started talking to a few locals. No one could tell him how to do it, so he went onto the River Cottage website and bought Pig in a Day, a DVD about how to rear pigs. “We watched the DVD and said ‘right this is how we’re going to take care of them’.”
Duncan’s good friend Matt Dicey, a fellow winemaker, turned one of his small rooms into a drying room and the pair got underway. “The prosciutto was the first thing and what interested me most, so we tried that and the first couple – six or seven years ago – either by luck or design turned out perfectly. We thought ‘this is fantastic’ so we started going the whole hog!”
Next they started experimenting with hams and slowly refined what they were doing. “We worked out the best method for us. If you were an expert prosciutto maker you’d probably shake your head and wonder what’s going on but it works. We’re hacks; we’re not professionals by any stretch of the imagination.”
Duncan’s pigs live on a vineyard between Wanaka and Cromwell. It’s a 12-hectare property with just under seven hectares in vines. The pigs are sectioned off into areas and are used to turn over sections of vineyard that are going to be replanted. They are fed grain and food scraps and they forage under the vines. After a few years’ experimentation the rare breed Old Euro and the Saddleback breed is a combination they find works. They are usually aged between eight and 14 months or 70 to 80 kilos when they are killed. The back leg needs to be between eight and 12 kilos, as if it’s any smaller it becomes too salty. The quality of the prosciutto depends entirely on the way it has been cured. Salt is rubbed into the surface and then the leg is buried in a barrel of salt with a heavy weight on top for two and a half days per kilo. Next it is removed from the salt and washed, and then hung for three months in a drying box under the eaves where there is plenty of airflow. After three months it is covered with pure cocoa butter (supplied by White Rabbit Cacao Chocolate) and then hung in the cellar amongst the wine barrels to mature for nine months.
Over dinner and a couple of glasses of Cucumber Mint Punch (see how to make it on my YouTube channel) Duncan explained the nuances of prosciutto, as when you taste the different types at the deli they all have quite different flavours. Duncan says the flavour partly depends on the pig’s diet, it's breed and whether it’s a boar or a sow – for example Jamón Ibérico from Spain gets its distinctive flavour from the Ibérico breed and a diet of wild acorns. He describes his prosciutto as having a salty sweetness and a strength and fullness of flavour you don’t get with “all that injected rubbish”. He says the flavour profile changes depending on where the pig has been foraging. “The first ones we did were pigs that had run in an orchard full of plums and you could taste the fruit component when you ate it. It was amazing. It all depends on the final month of the pig’s diet. We ran the pigs on hills above the vineyard one year and they were terrible because they were too lean. They were working too hard, moving around too much and they didn’t have enough fat. It was meaty with no sweetness.”
Once cured, prosciutto needs to be very thinly sliced – literally paper thin – as the thinner it is, the sweeter and finer the flavour will be.
It is usually eaten as is without any cooking, but also has the ability to layer flavour into a dish and make it into something really fancy – as demonstrated in my Chicken Prosciutto Parcels. It’s such a luxurious product and something to savour. If you keep a packet in the fridge (it keeps for ages as long as it’s sealed) you will always be able to transform the everyday into something special.
For our dinner with Duncan, I picked edible flowers from my garden to make a Flower Power Salad to serve with our main course. It looked so pretty with the dramatic colours of black hollyhocks and orange marigolds and was a real talking point at the table.
I always like to mix up flowers and veges in my garden. Not only are some of the flowers good to eat (and by the way dahlia tubers are a very good food source), it’s also a great way to bring beneficial insects and pollinators into the garden.
After meeting Duncan I’m inspired to get into pigs and prosciutto-making one day. I just need to find the perfect cool, airy spot in which to dry it! With nothing more than salt, cool air, a happy well-fed pig and a whole lot of time, you too can create and enjoy this gourmet delicacy!
find out more
- Want to find out more about this episode? Check out the TV pages of my website for videos, bonus recipes and behind-the-scenes photos.
- Find out more about Season One of The Free Range Cook
- Find out more about Season Two of The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures
special thanks to
- Duncan Forsyth from Mt Edward