Speck: A Joy from the Südtyrol
I have been told that, in Germany, the word speck means "lard." However, German is as variable as Italian, and in the valleys of the Südtyrol, a section of southern Austria that Italy annexed up to the Passo del Brennero at the end of World War I, so as to obtain a defensible border (the Val D'Adige, which extends south from the pass, leads straight to the heartland of the Veneto), speck doesn't mean lard, but rather a very special salt-and-cold-smoke cured ham that is a remarkable fusion of the much sharper smoked meats of middle Europe and the sensuous salt-cured, air dried prosciutti of northern Italy.
Despite the inroads of mechanization and the food industry the production of speck remains quite artisinal and speck has recently obtained IGP status, which means it can only be made in the Südtryol and only following time-honored production techniques. No shortcuts, for example speeding the curing by injecting brine. Instead the producers (about 27 scattered throughout the Südtyrol) procure their hams from freshly slaughtered locally raised pigs at the end of the fall, and salt cure them with coarse sea salt and a mixture of herbs; the mixture varies from producer to producer, and the producers keep their formulas secret, passing them on only to the heirs who will continue the family business. After three weeks of curing the hams are smoked using cool smoke (not above 20 C, or 68 F) from non-resinous woods, and subsequently air cured for several more months, during which time local molds add nuance and complexity to the flavor of the hams.
The speck is now ready; the producer wipes off the mold and sends it to market; by comparison with prosciutto the lean meat part of speck is a darker, richer red tending towards black ruby, while the fat is white to pale pink. Ideally there should be about 50% fat and 50% lean meat in a speck (this is the ideal for prosciutto too), but one often sees specks that are almost entirely lean meat, and this may be a response to market pressure because most people don't want much fat. In terms of texture and flavor, speck is a bit firmer than Parma or San Daniele, and has pleasing smoky notes that mingle with the savory pork flavor one finds in prosciutto.
In the Südtyrol speck was traditionally used to welcome visitors, who would be offered a plate with speck sliced thinly and cut into matchsticks, pickles, and well-toasted bread. And it's quite nice this way, though its rich flavor allows it to contribute to of many dishes. And indeed, many prefer to use it as an ingredient rather than eat it directly.
A last thing: If you cannot find speck, substitute for it with either pancetta (ideally the flat variety), or slab bacon, selecting a hickory-cured bacon with the least amount of sugar possible.
ENOUGH TALK! SOME RECIPES
Canederli allo Speck in Brodo
Bread balls with speck for a clear soup have an intriguing smoky tang.
An extraordinarily creamy minestrone from the Veneto.
Polenta Pastizada Trionfo Friulana
An extraordinarily rich baked polenta, a perfect centerpiece for a festive meal.
Spaghetti allo Speck
Speck crisps wonderfully, and is delightful in this easy quick pasta sauce.
Tagliatelle Coi Funghi, Speck e Noci
Speck has a wonderfully woodsy feel about it that nicely complements both wild mushrooms and walnuts in this very tasty fall pasta sauce.
Speck e Rucola con Scaglie di Parmigiano
A tasty salad; the sharpness of arugola nicely balances the richness of the speck.
Lenticchie con lo Speck
Lentils work wonderfully with all sorts of pork, including speck
Torta Salata con Speck e Cipolle
A Tyrolean equivalento of a quiche, and tasty it is, too, with onions and speck.
Speck e Brasato al Santa Maddalena
A tasty beef pot roast that gains depth from speck.