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Technical question: Why is ham sliced so thick in France?

greatgatsby Oct 13, 2011 09:42 AM

It would be great if you can help me out with this one: We have recently moved to France from Italy. One of the arguably greatest assets of the Italian kitchen is its raw prosciutto and associated products (lardo, bresaola, etc etc).

If you buy raw ham in Italy, does not matter whether in a supermarket or a top butcher, slices will be typically VERY thin, equivalent to the second-lowest setting of commercial slicing machines (people typically order "number 2" or "number 1" slices, with number 1 being the thinnest technically possible setting. You may disagree, but I tend to think that the thinner the slice the better the aroma of a high quality dried cut of meat becomes. Most Italians probably would agree with this.

Now, in France we have found so far that ham (raw and cooked) is cut very, very thick. At least by Italian standards. So I have two questions:

1) Do the French really like their ham cut thick and if so why - or am I going to the wrong shops?
2) Is there a polite or smooth way in French to ask the butcher for truly superfine slices?

Thank you! Your help is much appreciated!

  1. v
    vielleanglaise Oct 13, 2011 12:10 PM

    1) I don't know for the whole of France, but In the Cantal, they cut there ham thicker than you'll find it in other regions. I've also found in Italy though that the slices of ham, raw ham that is, varies in thickness from region to region.

    2)A good French butcher here will slice your ham to the dimensions you desire. Just say "plus fin".

    1. Delucacheesemonger Oct 14, 2011 12:40 AM

      Here in Paris never noticed the issue. l like baked ham somewhat thickly sliced, so always get it that way. For cured hams like it very thinly sliced, so always get it that way. Over the last month, been to at least four restaurants and three shops that all have Berkel slicers that are there to cut the cured hams so thin, you can see through the slices.

      1. c
        chicagoparis Oct 14, 2011 04:46 AM

        thick slices weigh more than thin slices and cost more than thin slices and unless you know the butcher make sure the sample slice "comme ça?" is really the model for all the slices to follow. welcome to Paris.

        1. d
          DeppityDawg Oct 14, 2011 05:06 AM

          "2) Is there a polite or smooth way in French to ask the butcher for truly superfine slices?"

          Ask for "chiffonnade" or "en chiffonnade". This may even be thinner than you want.

          1. greatgatsby Oct 14, 2011 05:17 AM

            Great, thank you for all your replies, that is really helpful. I will talk to the butcher then. Of course, there could be the element of selling more and spending less time cutting. But judging from your responses it seems that it is perfectly acceptable to ask whoever is doing the cutting to change it to "incredibly thin". And there are probably regional differences as well, if I remember correctly in the Sued-Ouest the Jambon di Bayonne is traditionally cut really thick.

            Many thanks, greatgatsby

            7 Replies
            1. re: greatgatsby
              Parigi Oct 14, 2011 05:34 AM

              The more strongly seasoned cured hams and charcuteries are usually cut much thinner. It just makes sense seasoning-wise. The Iberian ham and chorizo sold at Oteiza and served chez L'Ami Jean are translucent.
              Ditto the prosciutto in Italy. If you eat a thick slice of something so highly seasoned, you get a mouthful of extreme saltiness. I suspect it is sliced extremely thin the same reason sharp cheeses are sliced extremely thin. As I said, just makes sense.
              Regular ham has a much less pronounced seasoning, especially good fresh degreased ham that you find at good butchers. If you do not specify, the butcher will slice it thin but not as thin as for smoked ham.

              1. re: Parigi
                greatgatsby Oct 14, 2011 07:29 AM

                Parigi, that is a good point and it probably explains a significant part of the variation.

                But you know, I tend to think that independent of seasoning the taste of the ham and charcuterie is better the thinner it is sliced. I do not have a good explanation for why that would be the case, physical or chemical, but I bet you to try even with a regular cooked and lean ham, thickly sliced and thinly sliced, and you will be able to detect more flavour from the thinly sliced slices.

                1. re: greatgatsby
                  Parigi Oct 14, 2011 07:34 AM

                   I will have to disagree when it comes to foie gras and cooked ham. With the slicing of cured hams, less is more. With cooked ham, less is less. And foie gras ain't a spread. It has to be thought of, and tasted, as a slab of meat. :-)

                  1. re: Parigi
                    m
                    mikey8811 Oct 14, 2011 12:16 PM

                    "And foie gras ain't a spread. It has to be thought of, and tasted, as a slab of meat. :-)"

                    That's a good one hahaha

                2. re: Parigi
                  p
                  Ptipois Oct 15, 2011 02:27 AM

                  I think some people here really don't get it when they assume that slicing thicker is a way of extorting more money. Why compare with what other countries do? They don't set a standard. Only the type and quality of product set a standard.

                  French boiled ham (jambon de Paris) is always sliced a minimum of 2 mm thick because, as you say, it is a mildly-seasoned ham. It is also a bit more watery than cured ham. It should be cut thicker for some preparations "à la parisienne", in which it is diced and mixed with sliced mushrooms and cream.

                  As a rule hams are sliced a bit thicker in France than in other places. That is because our cured hams (jambon d'Auvergne) are less salty and less cured than Italian, Basque or Spanish hams. With jambon d'Auvergne, there's a "chew", the meat is more elastic and more raw, so if you want it to hold itself you have to slice it 1 to 2 mm thick, sometimes more. And you slice off the whole width of the ham (perpendicular to where the bone should be) not sideways or in a slanted way like Spanish ham or hand-sliced prosciutto.

                  1. re: Ptipois
                    k
                    kerosundae Oct 15, 2011 04:19 AM

                    I need to get me some jambon d'Auvergne! I love thick, elastic, raw ham! I sampled some prosciutto at the Salon de l'Agriculture in Feb. from an Italian man that was like that, best I've ever had, so I bought 2 kilos, but the DH ate it all because I started traveling 3 days later. Been dreaming about it ever since.
                    As always, thank you for sharing your knowledge!

                    1. re: kerosundae
                      Parigi Oct 15, 2011 04:33 AM

                      You may want to try Au coeur de l'Auvergne, 21 rue des Martyrs.

              2. PBSF Oct 14, 2011 07:41 AM

                In Italy, we found that there is variation and much debate on how prosciutto is served. From our experience in Venice, many of the good restaurants still hand slice their prosciutto from boned in legs. These slices tend to be thicker than that of the more common boneless formed prosciutto that is sliced by a slicer (just about all supermarkets, butchers and deli sell the boneless).. We found that the texture of hand sliced prosciutto has a pleasant chewiness and texture. That is definitely true in Spain as just about every tapas bar and restaurant has a boned in jamon on a carving stand for hand slicing. Same for places that sell it. One never get serve big thin cross slices but rather smaller slices. And in various shops in Paris such as de Rosa and the food hall of Galeries Lafayette, jamon is still hand sliced and thicker. The jamon Iberico are cured much longer and is drier than the Italian prosciutto yet they are served sliced thicker.
                The Berkel slicers are the current rage because some feel that the heat from the electric machine melts the fat of the cured ham.

                4 Replies
                1. re: PBSF
                  Delucacheesemonger Oct 14, 2011 09:06 AM

                  Hand sliced is a whole different animal. The huge advantage of hand slicing, IMVHO, is that you have different thicknesses all over the slice. Thus you have a melty part, a chewy part, and a perfect part. All to the good.

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger
                    PBSF Oct 14, 2011 09:28 AM

                    Your point about hand sliced is well taken. That is the reason that many Italians do not prefer paper thin slices of prosciutto. Most of the finest prosciutto and jamon from Spain are cured with the bone in, making them unsuitable for machine slicing.

                    1. re: PBSF
                      v
                      vielleanglaise Oct 14, 2011 04:40 PM

                      Perhaps I mix in the wrong circles, but I've only tried pata negra hand cut and in thick slices. Tasted good to me, as did the ham I cite above in Cantal. What did they do in Parma before the mechanical slicer?

                      1. re: vielleanglaise
                        PBSF Oct 14, 2011 09:12 PM

                        Hand sliced with a very thin sharp knife. Prosciutto di Parma is cured only with the bone it. For the boneless version, they remove the bone after it is cured, then reshape and vacuum pack it.

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