Speck is a cured meat native to the Tyrol, a region which spans part of Northern Italy and Southern Austria. This meat enjoys a protected designation of origin (PDO) in the European Union, which means that only meats which have been processed in a specific area of the Tyrol and in accordance with traditional practices may be labeled as “speck.” This designation is designed to protect historic and regional foods by celebrating traditional foods and preparation methods and providing consumers with labeling regulation which assures them that the products they are buying are prepared in specific ways.
In Germany, “speck” is often used synonymously with “lard,” which can raise some confusion. Traditional speck is a meat similar to bacon, prosciutto, or pancetta, with a distinct flavor and preparation method which is separate from these traditional meats. This meat is often served as an appetizer, traditionally included on hospitality plates, and it can also be used in cooked dishes.
To prepare speck, cooks start with a boned ham leg. The meat is rubbed in a mixture of salt and spices such as laurel, juniper, and pepper and allowed to cure before being cold smoked with beech, juniper or ash wood over a period of several days. After this, the meat is air dried for several months. This method blends the traditions of salting followed by air drying and smoking; many other foods from this region of the world also blend cooking techniques native to the Mediterranean and more Northern areas of Europe.
Like other cured meats, speck is not cooked, but the curing process renders it safe to eat raw. The meat usually has a deep red to ruby color, with the fat being bright white. Traditionally, high quality speck includes about a half and half mix of fat and lean meats, with rich marbling, but modern producers sometimes lean more towards lean meats to satisfy consumer concerns about fat. In fact, the fat is an integral part of the experience, contributing to the rich mouthfeel and complex flavor, and consumers who are normally wary of fatty meats may want to give traditional speck a try. Consumers should also be aware that the rind of the meat classically develops mold during the curing process, but it can be scraped off, and the meat underneath is perfectly safe
The production of speck appears to date to at least the 1200s, when written records about this traditional meat first began to appear. This meat is part of a larger family of traditional Italian meats known as salumi. Outside of Europe, speck can be obtained from Italian grocery stores and European importers, especially if they carry a large selection of cured meats.