Sea breeze blows flavour into Parma ham

Medieval towers in Parma, Italy
Medieval towers in Parma, Italy

Fragrant air breezing up from the Tuscany and the northern pine forests of northern Italy mix with the warmth of southerly Mediteranean Sea winds to create perfect conditions for making the world famous Parma Ham. It’s here, around the beautiful city of Parma, lying amidst the fertile farmlands between the Apennine Mountains and the Po River, that the unique flavours, textures and tastes are developed. Each September, the town celebrates its gastronomic heritage with the Festival di Prosciutto di Parma where the processing plants open their doors to curious visitors, wine tastings are enjoyed in city centre squares and meals are a celebration of the local produce. In this second of three posts, we look at how the hams are produced.

A precious leg of Parma ham
A precious leg of Parma ham

The medieval city is the centre of ham production, offering a feast of pork products including delicate salamis, and the ever-popular, ‘Prosciutto’ ham, (pronounced proshooto). Many local restaurants serve appetizers of salumi mistri, a selection of locally cured, cold cut meats. [There are three great recipes (see below), all of which complement the delicate flavours of the ham, including a delicious main course bought to life with zesty lemons and oranges.]

Slicing Parma ham is skilled work
Slicing Parma ham is skilled work

 

 

This Italian ham is often confused with bacon or pancetta, both of which are made from the pork belly and must be cooked before eating.

There are hundreds of breeding pig farms in Parma, all of which are acknowledged and classified by the Instituto Parma Qualita (I.P.Q.). Prosciutto, which translates to ‘ham’, is made from the hind legs of pigs and is aged through a dry-curing process which can last up to 24 months and beyond.

There is no single secret to creating Parma ham, but it all starts with choice of pig. Specially bred and selected heritage Large White, Landrace and Duroc breeds, born and raised by authorised breeding farms located in one of 10 regions of central-northern Italy. Their meat can be described as mature, firm and compact, and only the hind legs are used.

Once it has picked up the aroma of the region’s pine forests, the Versilia sea wind from Tuscany brushes against the mountains of the Cisa, just south of Parma where it loses most of its salty tang, and finally rolls through the chestnut woods, picking up a faintly nutty aroma. For centuries, this fragrant, dry wind has been used by farming alchemists of Emilio-Romangna to cure their hams. Specially bred pigs, sea salt, air and time and artisan butchers and processors are all that’s needed to create the world famous Prosciutto di Parma.

Fed a specially regulated blend of grains, cereals and whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production the animals grow heavy, slowly, steadily adding weight with their health carefully monitored well cared.

By law the pigs are at least nine months old and must weigh a minimum of 140 kgs at the time of slaughter; this is one of the huge differences with other “generic” prosciuttos, which normally use pigs born and raised abroad (northern Europe) and slaughtered at just six months.

How to make Prosciutto: The Curing Process

Step One: Once the legs reach the prosciuttificio (processing plant), each ham is tagged with a button, indicating the date it began curing.

Hams resting in a salting room
Hams resting in a salting room

Step Two: Next, salting is completed by hand in the traditional manner, by the maestro salatore, or salt master, who uses only the minimal amount of sea salt necessary. This makes Prosciutto di Parma taste less salty than other cured hams.

Hanging hams develop the flavour
Hanging hams develop the flavour

Step Three: After the initial salting, the hams are held for 70 days in climate-controlled, refrigerated rooms to ensure the sea salt properly absorbs into the meat.

Step Four: The hams are then washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt and impurities, then hung in drying rooms for a few days.

Step Five: The hams are hung on frames in well-ventilated rooms with large windows to allow for a constant and gradual drying of the hams for about three months. This is the period that is critical to the development of Prosciutto di Parma’s unique flavor.

Softened with a mixture of lard, salt and pepper to prevent drying out
Softened with a mixture of lard, salt and pepper to prevent drying out

Step Six: The exposed surfaces of the hams are then softened with a mixture of lard, salt and pepper to prevent the external layers from drying too quickly.

Testing the ham with a traditional horse bone needle
Testing the ham with a traditional horse bone needle
Readiness is determined by an experienced 'nose'
Readiness is determined by an experienced ‘nose’

Step Five: After at least 400 days (some hams are aged up to 36 months!), an independent inspector pierces the ham in several locations with a horse bone needle, which helps the inspector tell if there’s any spoilage, but lets him use it again for the next ham.

This ham is ready to eat and so gets the 'brand' seal of approval
This ham is ready to eat and so gets the ‘brand’ seal of approval
Hams ready for branding
Hams ready for branding
The seal of approval
The seal of approval

Only once the ham has passed all six phases is the five pointed, or ‘ducal’ symbol branded onto the leg. The crow was originally created to symbolize the Duke of Parma and Piacenza (a town northwest of Parma) and is still used as the coat of arms of Parma today.

Fizzy Malvasia wine is great with Parma ham
Fizzy Malvasia wine is great with Parma ham

Prosciutto di Parma is delicious on its own, wrapped around seasonal fruit such as melon or figs or on a charcuterie board. It will liven up a dish by dicing the end cut for pastas, spicing up a grilled cheese or topping a salad along with some Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a slosh of olive oil. Pair it with craft beer, such as Belgian wheat beer, a light beer with a subtle citrus taste, or a Porter, a darker malted been with slight nutty tones and toffee characteristics or a fruity white wine such as a Malvasia from the region. It’s also classically paired with Lambrusco – a sparkling red wine from the same region.

If you’re shopping for items to bring home, head straight for celebrated Parma delis such as Salumeria Garibaldi, which dates back to 1829 and offers sumptuous displays of legs of Parma ham, wheels of that other local delicacy, parmigiano reggiano cheese and local wines such as Lambrusco and Malvasia.

Once you’ve got your Proscuitto home, keep whole legs are best hung in a cold room, and not in a fridge. Sliced ham should be tightly wrapped and kept in the fridge to keep moist. Parma ham is at its best when carved into very thin, melt in your mouth slices. Perhaps your local deli will help cut the ham into slivers.

There are typically two types of prosciutto: cotto, which is cooked, and crudo, which is uncooked and is often found wrapped around fruit such as melon for as a starter dish or offered on charcuterie boards.

Here are three ways of enjoying your Parma ham!

Melon and Parma Ham, a classic appetiser

Cut a melon into chunks having removed skin and any pips. Arrange slices of ham amongst the melon pieces and further decorate with some rocket, season with black pepper and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil mixed with a small splash of balsamic vinegar.

 

Bruschetta with tomato and Parma ham
(adapted from ‘Fast Food’ by Gordon Ramsey).

Serves 4

Total time required 15 mins
Preparation time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 10 mins

8 ripe cherry tomatoes
3 basil leaves, shredded
1½ tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
1 pinch salt
1 pinch pepper
4 thick slices of ciabatta
1 fat garlic clove, halved
2 slices Parma ham/ Proscuttio

 

Divide 6-8 ripe cherry tomatoes into quarters and put into a bowl.

Add shredded basil leaves, red wine vinegar, olive oil and season.

Gently stir the mixture and set aside.

Toast 4 thick slices of ciabatta, then rub one side with a halved fat garlic clove.

Place on serving plates and spoon over the tomato mixture.

Drape each bruschetta with 2 slices of Parma ham or Prosciutto and serve.

Parma Ham with rhubarb, organic beetroot and citrus fruit
(Adapted from an Antony Worrall Thompson recipe)

Serves 6
Prep time 40 minutes

2 beetroot
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 sticks forced rhubarb, sliced diagonally into 5 cm cubes
1 pink grapefruit
1 blood orange
black pepper
1 shallot, finely diced
2 tbsp aged red wine vinegar
65 ml extra virgin olive oil
50 ml walnut oil
1 tbsp chopped chervil, plus a few sprigs, to garnish
12 slices Parma ham, 2 per serving
2 heads of chicory.

Cut the stems and leaves of each beetroot down to 2.5cm long. Resist trimming the root ends.

Boil the beetroot in a saucepan of salted water for about 40 minutes-1 hour, until tender. Drain and peel. Cut each beetroot into eight wedges and place in a large mixing bowl.

Add the sugar to a large saucepan of water and bring to the boil. Add the rhubarb and cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain the rhubarb and add to the beetroot.

Grate the zest from half of the grapefruit and the whole of the orange and set aside. Cut off the rinds, leaving no white pith. Holding the fruit over the beetroot and rhubarb, cut out the segments between each membrane and let them fall into the bowl. Squeeze the juice from the segmented fruit into the bowl.

Season the salad generously, then add the shallot, red wine vinegar, reserved citrus zests, olive oil, walnut oil and chopped chervil. Toss gently and leave to macerate for 15 minutes.

Arrange the salad in the centre of each serving plate, surrounded by two slices of Parma ham and a few chicory leaves. Garnish with chervil sprigs and serve immediately.

For more Parma ham information, click here.

Photos (c) The Lemon Grove, 2016

 

Bruce McMichael

I am freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise; culture and travel. I have also written about the global upstream oil and gas industry, shipping and current affairs. Based in London, I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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