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Oct 13, 2011 09:42 AM

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

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!

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  1. 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. 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. 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. "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. 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

              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

                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

                   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

                    "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

                  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

                    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

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