Is it just us, or is the appetiser one of the best things about a meal?
Hear us out. Of course, we love the main dish and we have a soft spot for any great dessert. But there’s a lot to be said for building up the anticipation (and appetite) for the main course.
That’s the role of the appetiser. It gives you something tasty to enjoy that will get the juices flowing. And when done well, it can be as satisfying as the main meal!
It’s no wonder that so many chefs pour so much effort into their appetisers.
The Italians, being the culinary wizards that they are, have turned the appetiser into an art form. The humble aperitif involves drinking a tasty Italian wine to set the mood. And of course, you then have the little meal itself to really get you ready for the main course.
But that leaves us with a question.
Which is the best Italian appetiser?
We’re going to say right off the bat that this is an impossible question to answer. With so many great dishes to choose from, it really does come down to taste.
However, there is one dish that we love simply because it creates something amazing out of what should be an odd combination.
We’re talking about ham and melon!
Really? Ham and Melon?
At first glance, this may not seem like the best combination of foods in the world. We all know that melon has this remarkably fresh taste that sets it aside from other fruits. Ham, on the other hand, is much richer. Plus…it’s a meat.
Meat and fruit don’t usually go together all that well.
But there’s something about this dish that just works. The ham doesn’t overpower the melon as you might expect. In fact, the melon adds a freshness to the dish that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
It’s a perfect starter for a warm summer.
The Unexpected History
You might think that such an odd coupling is the result of some mad genius modern chef who’s trying something different.
But the reality is that ham and melon as a combination dates further back than anybody might reasonably expect. In fact, digging into history shows that it’s a dish that’s existed for almost two millennia.
The earliest known mentions of the combination date all the way back to the second century!
It all started with a doctor named Galeno. He had an interesting theory in which he matched what he saw as the four qualities of food with the four key elements in life. In his mind, every dish is made up of warm, cold, dry, and juicy qualities. The balance simply changes depending on the dish.
That balance, he believed, equated to the elements of fire, earth, water, and air. As such, the food we eat reinforced those elements that make up all existence. And as a result, food could have curative properties.
As is often the case with old science and theories, there’s a kernel of truth hidden in all of that. Today, we know much more about nutrients, vitamins, and the like. We know the importance of achieving balance in our diets, which is almost what Galeno argued here. A balance between the four food elements would result in better health.
It’s an interesting starting point for the nutritional understanding that we have today.
And in applying this theory to melon and ham, Galeno helped to create a brand new dish. In his mind, only bread combined all four of the major food qualities. Of course, we now know that bread is a carb-heavy food that needs to be balanced with others. But at the time, Galeno had the theory that any other food, including fruit and vegetables, had to be paired with foods that represented different ends of his four-element scale.
That’s where the ham and melon combination came from. In Galeno’s time, melon was considered something of a dangerous fruit, not least because it was juicy and cold. By pairing it with warm ham, Galeno also created a dry counterbalance to the juiciness of the melon.
Cured ham was the obvious choice due to its dry nature. The most surprising thing is that the combination actually worked. Of course, we don’t mean on a medical scale here. Don’t for a second believe that this appetiser will cure whatever ails you. But the strange mix of foods does create a culinary balance that is a joy to experience.
As a result, the dish has managed to survive over the centuries. Even as we moved far beyond Galeno’s way of thinking, people still love to mix melon and ham.
How Do You Make it?
The true joy of the dish lies in its simplicity.
All you really need is a melon and some cured ham. Chop the melon into chunks and remove the seeds. Combine with the ham and you’re pretty much done!
Now, you can garnish the dish a little bit. Some rocket salad makes a nice addition, as does a rapeseed oil drizzle.
We’d avoid using salt simply because it can eat into the melon and ruin its flavour. However, a little black pepper, especially if worked into the ham before serving, can add an interesting twist to the dish.
The Final Word
It is perhaps this simplicity that has played the biggest part in ensuring that ham and melon has endured as a food combination for so many years.
That and the fact that it tastes really good!
You can easily prepare this at home in a matter of minutes and have a tasty appetiser ready to go.
And before we forget…the Italian wine pairing!
We recommend pairing a Prosecco with this dish. It meshes well with the freshness of the melon and tempers the slight richness of the ham.
You can find plenty of great bottles of Prosecco on the xtraWine site. Just check out the catalogue and then start preparing a true Italian classic and favourite.