Parma ham is a type of prosciutto (pronounced proshooto) a word derived from the Latin perexuctus, and the modern Italian verb prosciugare meaning ‘to deprive of all liquid’, because the hams are salted and dried. This preserving process dates back at least to the second century B.C. and thought to have used by the Romans and Etruscans. It was the Gauls, however, living in the mountain regions, who became expert prosciutto-makers and sold hams to the Romans. The mountain air and breezes supposedly give prosciutto its sweet flavour. Today, air-cured hams are produced in many northern areas of Italy but primarily in Emilia in the provinces of Parma and Modena and in Fruili at San Daniele. The hams from different areas have different flavours and most Italians have a preference. San Daniele and Parma ham are known as dolce for their sweet flavour. The hams of Tuscany and Umbria are known as salato for their saltier, more savoury flavour, because they use more salt and pepper and sometimes other spices or garlic in the curing process. Prosciutto di Norcia is sometimes lightly smoked which alters the flavour of this ham from the others.
On a trip around a prosciutto factory in Parma I was impressed by how many staff were working there – no wonder the ham is so costly! It was like a scene from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ with the incredible attention that was given to these slabs of meat. It struck me as an employer what an incredible amount they must spend on wages. It is made under such strict guidelines that everything has to be monitored by humans using limited machinery to speed up part of the processes involved in preparing the hams to be hung.
Prosciutto di Parma is made from nine month old pigs weighing a minimum of 150 kilos. They have to have been bred in eleven of the northern and central Italian regions and kept on a carefully controlled diet. Markings on the leg applied at the slaughterhouses will denote the farm and region they came from and the month they were killed. However the curing has to happen in the traditional production area near Parma. Salt is the only preservative used, no chemicals are allowed. During the processes of salting and hanging the hams will lose almost a third of their weight which is why the flavour is so concentrated.
The legs are trimmed at the slaughterhouses into a chicken leg shape and then sent to the curing houses. Here they are salted and hung for 6 to 7 days in a refrigerated chamber which has 80% humidity. After this they are given a second salt and hung in dry conditions for 15 to 18 days. Here they start to dry out and lose up to 4% of their weight.
The next phase of the curing process is called “resting”, the legs are put in another cold store room for 60-70 days with 75%humidity. These stores are often aired naturally so the temperature and humidity are dictated by nature. Here they lose up to 10% of their weight.
The hams are then washed over the period of one week with warm water to eliminate excess salt. They are then in the pre-curing phase which is carried out in large rooms with windows on either side, where hams are hung on special wood frames called “scalere”. The airflow regulation is very important. This phase lasts about 3 months.
After the curing phase the ham is beaten to improve its round “chicken leg” shape. Sometimes the bone is covered in pepper to keep the contact area dry. Weight loss during this phase is up to 10%. Then after months of hanging, in a scene which looked like chiaroscuro painting from Caravaggio, the bone, any cuts and the uncovered muscle is then slathered with suino – lard, salt and pepper by two ladies under a heat lamp. The greasing softens the external layers, stops them drying too rapidly and also allows further humidity loss.
In the seventh month, the ham is transferred to the “cellars”, rooms with less air and light. The controller uses a tool – a horse bone needle (a long needle carved from a horse’s lower-leg bone which is extremely porous), to plunge into 5 different parts of the ham and sniffs it to determine the ham’s level of maturity. The weight loss during the curing is about 5%.
At the end of the minimum 12 month ageing period the ham has shrunk by a third and acquired its unique and delicate aroma. Only then are the hams ready for the official stamp of certification, the Ducal Crown which is fire branded onto them.
I came away from my visit with great respect for the producers of Parma ham. This European Community certification system helps protect the names of high-quality European foods made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region. In addition to providing legally binding name protection for these products, the PDO system helps consumers, retailers, chefs, distributors and culinary professionals distinguish between authentic products and their many imitations. If people constantly use cheaper and inferior products these careful methods of production and a quality product such as Parma ham will disappear off our shelves.
- How to store Parma ham – if it is whole keep it hanging outside the fridge in a cool room. If it is already cut, wrap it tightly to stop it drying out and keep in the fridge.
- The ends of Parma ham that are too small to go through a slicer are often used to give flavour to a soup or stock.
- Lay any slightly dry slices in a hot oven for a few minutes to crisp them up and then use them as a garnish on soup or to introduce a crunchy texture to a dish.
- I couldn’t believe what a difference it made to the ham when it was cut into paper thin slices. It melts in the mouth in this way. Many Italians have small domestic slicing machines in their houses so that meats can be sliced freshly at home.
- Don’t be put off by the visible white fat, this helps make the amazing texture and flavour to prosciutto, whatever you do don’t peel it off and leave it on the plate, the Italians will never forgive you!
- Eat the ham with warm bread or better still Torta Fritta, also known as Gnocco Fritto; little squares of hot pastry that help the fats to melt instantly releasing a wonderful smell as you put it to your mouth.
- Do as the Parmese do, drink chilled Lambrusco or sparkling Malvasia with Parma ham, the wine’s acidity cuts through the fat and matches perfectly the flavour.
- Try San Daniele with hunks of Montasio cheese and a glass of Tocai or Prosecco. There you will have all the flavours of one region to enjoy.
- All prosciutto goes well with fruit particularly melon or figs but make sure you eat them when they are in season and have the right balance of sweetness and acidity to match the hams.