There's a lot more to cured meats than what's piled onto that Italian sub from the corner deli.
Butchers have been making the stuff for centuries – back before the age of refrigerators, curing meat kept it shelf-stable for long periods of time – and nowadays you can find a big lineup of styles with far-flung origins at most any grocery store.
Odds are you've tried most of it, but to get the most out of your deli counter order, get schooled on how the stuff is made and the subtle differences between 'em. It's not an exhaustive list – there are all kinds of lesser-known versions and sub-types of the bigger ones, but here's a crash course of the important options to know about.
Probably the most popular option, prized for its silky texture and blast of salty, savory flavor. It comes from legs of pork, which are dry-cured and then sliced super thin. The super high end stuff is aged for an even more intense flavor. And just like Champagne, the top quality, most authentic stuff known as Prosciutto di Parma can only come from a certain region (in this case Parma, a city in northern Italy).
The common form of sopressata is actually a sub-type called sopressa veneta. Back in the day, the stuff was pressed between planks of wood (hence the name) to flatten it, but producers in the Veneto region of did away with the practice to create what we're familiar with today. It's traditionally (though not always) made from pork, which is ground with spices, cased, and then hung to dry for one to three months.
Like prosciutto di parma, this is a highly specialized type of cured pork leg. It's produced in Spain and, to a lesser extent, Portugal, and can only come from black Iberian pigs who are raised and fed according to very strict standards to ensure the very best tasting ham. After being fattened on barley and maize, the pigs roam in pastures and oak groves where they naturally feed on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots.
There are a few grades, and the highest, jamón ibérico de bellota, is made from free-range pigs that roam oak forests and eat only acorns before being killed. It makes for mind-blowingly good ham, but it's also incredibly expensive and not easy to find.
Another type of dry-cured ham that's dried and aged for a year or longer. It's still tasty, but this version is several notches below the top quality Iberico stuff since it's made from a common breed of white pig on a diet of compound feed. It can still make a dent in your wallet, though, because of the import taxes necessary to get it stocked in your grocery store all the way from Spain.
A common type of Spanish sausage, made from ground pork, pimentón, and other smoky spices. There are soft, fresh versions out there, but the ones you'll find from Europe are usually cured or smoked so that you can just slice and eat.
The name, from the Italian capo ("head") and collo ("neck"), refers to where the meat is cut from: pork muscle that runs from the neck to the ribs. It's salted, cased, and rubbed with hot paprika for spicier versions, then cures for six months. The resulting charcuterie is tender and fatty, with a good amount of fatty marbling.
Think of this one as a beef version of capicola. Top round beef gets air-dried, salted, and then aged for two to three months while it firms and deepens in color. It's leaner than most pork charcuterie, though no less delicious.
So... hungry yet?