For the past two weeks, our local grocery store (Southgate Hornbacher’s), has been featuring large displays of cantaloupe melons from Guatemala. Tony mentioned them to me several times before I pointed out that we still had a package of prosciutto ham at home in our refrigerator, left over from our Easter feast.
Prosciutto and melon is a classic food pairing in Italy, and is commonly featured as an appetizer, or antipasto. Traditionally, the melon is sliced into long, crescent-shaped pieces and served with a slice of prosciutto wrapped around it.
When Tony first made this dish for me many years ago, I balked at the use of cantaloupe, and tried to reason with him that the sweeter, and firmer, honeydew melon would be much better.
“But then it wouldn’t be prosciutto con melone,” he said. His response was so simple, and typically Italian, that it left little room for argument. Tony assured me that, when paired with prosciutto, the balance of savory and sweet flavors would bring out the best in the cantaloupe. And he was right.
Prosciutto, or Parma ham, is a cured Italian meat made from the hind leg or thigh of the pig. The meat is cured in salt for two months, and then air-dried for at least eight more months before serving. Tony recalls that, in Etobicoke, the Toronto neighborhood where he was raised, there were several Italian families who made their own prosciutto, curing it on hooks attached to the ceiling of their basements.
Prosciutto is Tony’s favorite deli meat, and was a staple in his family’s home. One of his fondest memories of this Italian specialty comes from accompanying his mother on trips to their local butcher, the Savoia Meat Market. While they would wait for the butcher to prepare their order, Mr. Savoia would always make Tony a Panini of fresh Italian bread with a generous portion of his prosciutto.
Prosciutto is served in paper-thin slices, and has a silky, almost buttery texture. A delicious blend of salty and sweet, it’s so good you might be tempted to eat it by itself. But, when paired with the cantaloupe, this simple peasant creation assumes an air of casual elegance.
There are a few helpful tips to follow when buying cantaloupe. Look for a melon that is light tan in color with green lines running across it, and avoid any fruit with dents or bruises. Next, feel the melon: it should be firm, but not rock hard. If you’re planning to eat it within a day or two after purchasing, you’ll want a melon that has a little give when you press your thumb into it.
And finally, don’t be afraid to smell the melon. Give it a good sniff – a ripe cantaloupe should smell similar to a freshly cut one. If there is no smell, it’s under-ripe. If your nose picks up a very strong, fruity scent, or an unpleasant aroma, it’s probably overripe.
For this recipe, Tony is departing from the traditional presentation, opting instead to serve the sliced cantaloupe over a layer of prosciutto. He then drizzles the platter with a reduction of balsamic vinegar. This simple ingredient is made by cooking regular balsamic vinegar until it is reduced by half, and achieves a syrupy consistency. This final touch enhances the dish with its tart, tangy sweetness, and adds a dramatic contrast to the lovely pink and melon colors on the platter. Buon appetito!