This is first of three posts about a recent visit I was lucky enough to make to Italy, attending the Parma Ham festival and visiting an artisan producer of the famous seasoned pork legs, Prosciutto di Parma.
It’s true! Italians keep most of the best ham, Proscuito di Parma, for themselves. Named after at the heart of its production, Prosciutto (pronounced pro-shoot-oh) di Parma, the ham is ubiquitous across the city. But luckily for us, they can’t eat it all so if you buy single origin ham with the stamp of approval seen a a branded five pointed crown, you’ll eat very well (Tip: Look for five pointed logo on pre-packed ham slices!)
Tasting slices of the almost transparent, rose coloured ham sitting in the city’s central square, Piazza Garibaldi, with a chilled glass of white, fizzy local created using the wine Malvasia grape, is one of a traveler’s great memories.
My memories were created recently during a visit to the city known as a epi-centre of ham, and indeed Parmagiano Reggiano cheese, production. Parma is a medieval city, enjoying a special climate and history which two of key ingredients to prosciutto production, with seasonal dry winds from nearby mountains blowing south, and moist air blowing up from the Mediterranean Sea a few hundred kilometers to the south.
It’s hot in Parma, in September, when the medieval city in Italy’s northern province of Piedmont celebrates its famous ham produce with a boisterous festival. Buses shuttle between the city centre and parma ham factories which mostly lie around the edge of the city. Known as Finestre Aperte (Open Doors), locals and tourists get to see inside the various rooms housing hams maturing in natural conditions, apart from a short time in a freezer.
A gift of pairing
Piedmont is also known for hazelnuts and beef cheeks, guancia di manzo and balsamic vinegar from the nearby city of Modena, fizzy wines from the Malavisa grape. Pairing an almost transparent slice of Parma ham is one of northern Italy’s greatest gifts to the way we eat. And the local produce does seem to match well. With a delicate blend of perfumed sweetness and only faint echoes of any saltiness, the ham’s quality is recognized globally though having a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – DOP in Italian.
There are hundreds of recipes for prosciutto from stuffing them into pastries and available in cafes and bars across the city. Or you enjoy with pizza, of course, figs with a dash of balsamic vinegar, mozzarella and shellfish – try it wrapped around cooked prawns with a little olive oil, parsley and lemon zest.
Climate and tradition
Geography and climate has given Piedmont in northern Italy a huge boost when it comes to producing a market place full of unique local foods. It’s iconic Prosciutto di Parma ham is one of the world’s most recognizable foods, benefiting from tight quality control and a profound connection to the region’s farms and people.
The process all starts with the pigs, all born and raised in one of ten regions of central and northern Italy. The animals are fed on a special diet of quality cereals and whey, often the waste liquid produced from the making of Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses which gives the ham a slightly nutty flavour.
Ham specialist Corradi Guerrino found the ideal place to set up his company: the hills of Langhirano, an area rich of woods and where the quality of the air and the unique climate were perfect for a natural and slow maturation of its ham, a process we saw in rooms lined with hams in various stages of maturing.
The company is a founding member of the Parma Ham Consortium (Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma), an organisation set up to create rules defining and protecting the quality of its production, and recognisable by the five-point ducal crown branded onto each certified ham.
In part two of this series, I’ll look at how the hams are prepared and matured by the artisans working at Corradi Guerrin and how the climate, geography and tradition all play a key part in creating Prosciutto di Parma.
The Lemon Grove travelled to Parma courtesy of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.