An enticing fragrance, that is at once floral and spicy, permeates the air of Langhirano, a little town 22 kilometres from Parma in the Italian Region of Emilia-Romagna. At first I identified it as the scent of golden rod. But there were no golden rods sprouting alongside the tall, narrow-windowed buildings, which loomed behind the row of shops on the main street. Then with one deep breath, I understood: wafting on the fresh summer air was the scent of Parma Ham.
The entire production zone for this delicately-textured raw ham is a small patch located in the Province of Parma. Its boundaries begin five kilometres south of the via Emilia, and run to the shores of the Ena river in the east and to the Sitrone river in the west. The zone’s geography is vital to the development of the product; no chemical compounds or additives are used in the curing process, rather it is a little salt and the constant, soft breezes sweeping across the gentle hills which give Parma Ham its special flavour, quality and purity. Of the 200 three to four-storied curing facilities in the zone, 100 are in Langhirano. All phases of production are strictly controlled, beginning with the raising of the pigs. They must be Large White, Landrance or Duroc breeds, and their cereal diet often includes a dose of calcium-rich whey, a bi-product of cheese-making. Each pig is tattooed with the breeder’s code and the date of its birth.
The hams arrive at the curing houses weighing between 12-14 kilos. After they are analysed to insure that they contain no unnatural chemical substances, the hams are trimmed to maintain the traditional “chicken leg” shape, losing some 24% of their weight in muscle and fat. Each leg is then stamped with the date of its arrival.
Wet salt is applied to the skin of the ham and dry salt to the exposed flesh. The hams are then hung for around a week in a refrigerated chamber, which has a temperature of around 1 C to 4 C and a relative humidity of between 80% – 85%. The salt that has not been absorbed is then brushed off and the hams are given a sensorial analysis by experts trained in detecting off aromas and textures. Each ham will be given a through examination at nine specific points throughout the production process. If the hams pass the first examination, they are ready to be re-salted and put into a second cold storage room where they stay for 15 to 18 days. The temperature is kept at around 54 C. and the relative humidity is around 60%.
The next phase of the curing process is called “resting”. This is carried out in yet another storage room. This one is kept at between 1 C and 5 C with a relative humidity of 75%. During their
seven- to eight-week stay, the salt penetrates more deeply into the meat.
Then the hams are washed with warm (around 38 Cº) water to remove the excess salt. When they have dried thoroughly, they are moved to the curing rooms where they will stay for around 3 months. These rooms, located in the upper floors of the curing houses, are filled with the proscuitto’s sweet, musky fragrance. Here the temperature and humidity is dictated by nature. The only control is offered by the breeze passing through the room’s many windows and by the occasional use of a dehumidifier. Some medium-sized firms employ a person whose sole job consists of opening and closing windows.
The exposed meat is very delicate at this stage and must be covered with suino, a mixture of lard, a little salt and pepper (and sometimes ground rice). This protects the meat from flies and from drying out too rapidly. Suino is applied by specialized workers, who dip their fingers in the lard pot and deftly smear the meat with thumb and forefinger. Troops of independent workers hire themselves out to ham companies to do just this job.
After around seven months the hams are examined again. This time, the controller uses a tool unique to his trade: a long needle carved from a horse’s lower-leg bone. He plunges this into the fleshy part of the ham and sniffs it to determine the ham’s level of maturity and its state of health. The needle is made of horse (and sometimes cow) bone because this material quickly absorbs and releases odours.
The hams are moved to cellars, or at least to rooms with less light, to complete their ageing. After 12 months, they will be tested again, and only then will they be branded with the Ducal Crown, symbol of guaranteed quality. After 14 months they will have lost around 30% of their total weight.
If the Parma ham is left on the bone, it continues to mature and the flesh will be exceptionally soft and delicate. However, for export markets, Parma ham is often de-boned and vacuum-packed. The texture of these latter hams is somewhat coarser. Parma Ham is now used as an ingredient in main courses or as a filling for sandwiches, but its traditional place was as a first-course, often paired with melon or fresh figs. Imagine pink transparent slices of meat fanned out around a soft, plump green and purple fleshed fig on a plain white plate. Alongside it stands a cool glass of golden-tinged Malvasia. Sometimes traditional ways really are best.
GREEN MELONS WITH PROSCUITTO DI PARMA (Serves 4)
200 grams Parma Ham, 4 small melons, 200 grams cheese flakes, 1 tablespoon of coarsely ground pistachio nuts, and a sprinkling of Worcester sauce
Cut the tops off the melons and set them aside. Remove the seeds and filaments, and make small balls with the melon pulp. Finely mince the Parma Ham and gently mix it with the cheese, pistachio nuts and Worcester sauce. Fill the melons with the balls and cover with the cheese-pistachio mixture. Close with the melon tops and keep cool until ready to serve.
Wine Suggestion: Wines made from the Greco variety make fine partners. Greco Sannio from Tenuta Oppida Alinea, Greco from Masseria Di Majo Norante or a Greco di Tufo from any fine Campanian producer.
CORN ON THE COB, WITH CHEESY SAUCE (Serves 4)
8 slices of Parma Ham, 4 ears of corn, 250 grams fresh cream, 100 grams Gorgonzola (or any mild blue cheese), and a sparkling of cognac.
Boil the ears of corn until well done; drain and keep warm. In a saucepan melt the gorgonzola with the cream, add salt and pepper to taste. Lay the corn on a platter and arrange the Parma ham slices around the edge of the platter. Serve with the hot cheese sauce on the side.
Wine Suggestion: Any lightly-barriqued Chardonnay or a good Verdicchio, such as Villa Bucci Riserva.
TORTA AL PROSCUITTO
150 grams of Parma Ham (all in one piece), 100 grams of sliced Parma Ham, 250 grams ricotta, 150 grams mascarpone, a small handful of chervil and sweet marjoram, and some pink pepper corns.
Mix the cheese and the finely chopped herbs. Divide into three parts, then add the diced Parma ham to one of these, and the pink pepper corks to the two remaining parts. Line a spring-form pan with a sheet of transparent film and spread the bottom with a layer of pink pepper cheese, then make a second layer with the Parma Ham cheese. Continue to alternate the cheese until all the ingredients are used. Cover the cake with a sheet of transparent fill and put it in the fridge for two hours. Before serving, remove the transparent film and garnish with Parma Ham slices.
Wine Suggestion: A crispy Pinot Bianco or an aromatic white, such as a Riesling. A Vintage Tunina would also be a fine partner.