Italian Speck: A Symphony of Salt, Smoke, and Alpine Spices

Alto Adige’s famed cured meat embodies the region’s melting pot of cultures
April 10, 2019 Updated: April 10, 2019

Italy’s northernmost province of Alto Adige is a relatively recent addition to the country—the area belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until just 100 years ago, when it was ceded to Italy after World War I. The Austrian roots of this magnificent, intriguing region, also known as Südtirol (South Tyrol), are still evident in many aspects of its lifestyle and culture. The architecture and landscape evoke scenes from “The Sound of Music,” and German is the first language of 70 percent of the population.

Locals take pride in the province’s unique position as a bridge between two cultures. Alpine and Mediterranean traditions coexist in delicious harmony in one of the area’s most famous food products: the spiced, smoked, cured ham Speck Alto Adige.

Man cutting Italian speck by hand
The traditional way to slice speck is by hand. (Marco Parisi)

Speck (pronounced “shpeck”) originated with South Tyrolean mountain farmers who slaughtered their pigs during the Christmas season and needed a way to make the meat last over the entire year. The pork is preserved through a combination of the Southern European technique of salting and air drying, as is done with prosciutto, and the Northern European method of smoking.

Today, there are 29 authorized producers of Speck Alto Adige PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). The PGI status ensures that traditional methods and stringent regulations are respected throughout the process, and quality and authenticity are guaranteed by the Speck Alto Adige Consortium. Speck Alto Adige PGI is one of the most rigorously tested products in Italy.

Dolomites mountains behind Alto Adige Italy
The striking peaks of the Dolomites. (Marco Parisi)

A Taste of Territory

The meat for Speck Alto Adige is carefully selected from pigs that have been raised according to the Consortium’s standards, which include a regulated diet consisting mostly of soy, corn, wheat, and barley. The lean pork legs must arrive fresh, never frozen, at the production facilities.

Unlike prosciutto, the thigh is deboned, then coated with a proprietary blend of salt and local herbs and spices that typically includes juniper, rosemary, pepper, and garlic; many of the precise spice mix recipes have been handed down for generations, and are said to be closely guarded by each producer. After seasoning, the meat is left to marinate, or dry pickle, in cold rooms for about 20 days, and then lightly smoked for a week.

Speck hanging in nets in smoking room
Speck hanging in the smoking room at Senfter, an Italian producer. (Kristine Jannuzzi)

A hallmark of Speck Alto Adige is that it is subsequently hung to mature in cool, well-ventilated rooms filled with the surrounding pure mountain air, as was traditionally done in the cellars of South Tyrolean farms. One glimpse of the majestic, jagged peaks of the Dolomites that dominate the pristine landscape of the region makes it easy to understand how the terroir of Alto Adige is inextricably connected to the distinct taste of this delicacy.

The average aging period is 22 weeks, during which time the speck loses a minimum of 35 percent of its original weight. The salt content cannot exceed five percent in the final product, and the resulting flavor is very well-balanced—slightly smoky, and mildly infused with herbs and spices. It is denser and a little drier than prosciutto, but still quite moist.

Savoring Speck at Home

The ham is a staple in households across Alto Adige. “Everyone has a piece of speck in the fridge,” said Matthias Messner, director of the Speck Alto Adige Consortium. “It’s something that is very important locally—we eat five kilos [about 11 pounds] of speck per inhabitant per year. Usually we enjoy it raw: We’ll take a piece on a mountain trip, and at the top of the mountain, we cut it by hand and eat it with hard bread.”

Speck is often served as an antipasto, in paper-thin slices on a wooden board together with local cheeses, such as Stelvio or Alta Badia, and pickles. Another traditional preparation is in canederli, hearty bread dumplings stuffed with diced speck. Although you can substitute speck in recipes that call for prosciutto, keep in mind that it will add hints of smoke and spice to the dishes.

Girl holds platter of Italian speck with bread and pickles
Speck is often accompanied by pickles and bread. (Marco Parisi)

Lou Di Palo, the owner of Di Palo’s Fine Foods in New York City’s Little Italy, points out that while both prosciutto and speck come from the pig’s hind leg, the two are quite distinct. Di Palo was the first in the United States to import Italian speck, about 15 years ago.

“Speck is pretty special—it’s just like the community [of Alto Adige],” Di Palo said. “Speck is truly representative of the fusion of two cultures.”

Where to Find Speck Alto Adige PGI

Only two Italian producers, Senfter and Recla, export Speck Alto Adige PGI to the United States. When seeking out authentic Speck Alto Adige, look for the blue and yellow PGI seal and the green Südtirol logo on the label. You can find it at a number of retailers and specialty shops, including Eataly locations across the country and Di Palo’s Fine Foods in New York City, and online through Fresh Direct.

Authentic label and PGI seal on Italian speck
The green Südtirol logo and blue and yellow PGI seal indicate authentic Speck Alto Adige PGI. (Marco Parisi)

Kristine Jannuzzi is a bilingual (English/Italian) freelance writer, content creator, and social media consultant. Currently based in New York City, she is a frequent contributor to Culture: The Word on Cheese; her work also has been published in Italy Magazine, British Heritage Travel, Listen, and NYU Alumni Magazine, and on the websites Italia Living and Snooth, among others.

Speck Alto Adige PGI is part of an EU-funded program called “Uncommon Flavors of Europe” that is dedicated to promoting authentic Italian Speck, along with Asiago PDO and Pecorino Romano PDO. The author was a guest of the program on an educational study tour.