Parma Ham is an Italian specialty, made since Roman times, and can only come from a selected group of producers, based in the hills around the city of Palma, in Emilia-Romagna. Rupert Parker gets a taste
The Northern Italian city of Parma, just over halfway between Milan and Bologna, is known for its architecture, music, art, but is also renowned for its food, particularly Parmesan cheese and its special brand of ham. The pigs can be bred over a wider area of North Central Italy, but the hams must be produced within the Parma Ham production area located in the nearby countryside. Around 9 million legs of Parma ham are made each year by just 140 producers.
Production is overseen by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, set up in 1963 to protect the quality of the genuine product and its traditions. Specifications are strict. The meat must come from 9-month-old castrated male pigs only belonging to the Large White, Landrace and Duroc Breeds, bred in 11 northern and central Italian regions and weighing around 140 kg.
These days the hams are cured in large, modern temperature-controlled factories, but the techniques are traditional and still rely on the judgement of expert craftsmen. The production follows 10 stages:
- Each pig fasts for 15 hours before slaughter
- The legs are cut and placed in cold stores for 24 hours to shed excess liquid.
- Some fat and skin are then removed to give the ham its typical round “chicken leg” shape.
- Salting is carried out using humid salt for the skin and dry salt for the muscular parts. The legs spend a week in a cold store before this salt is removed and another layer of thinner salt is added. They’re hung for two weeks and the leg slowly assimilates the salt and loses humidity.
- After removing the salt the legs are “rested” for 60-70 days where they lose around 10% of their weight.
- The hams are then washed with warm water to eliminate excess salt and left to dry for a week.
- Next they are hung on special wooden frames called “scalere” and placed in large rooms with windows for 3 months.
- The hams are then beaten to improve their shape and the cavity around the bare part of the bone and the uncovered muscular mass are covered with a mixture of lard, salt, pepper and ground rice. This greasing softens the muscle layers to prevent the surface drying out too quickly.
- In the 7th month they are transferred to cellars and kept in the dark for a minimum of 12 months. The hams are constantly monitored by inserting a horse bone needle into different parts of the ham and smelling the results.
- At the end of the ageing period, the ham has lost around 30% of its weight and is checked for quality by a member of an independent inspection body (CSQA Certificazioni). If it passes, it’s then fire-branded with the official stamp of certification, a Ducal crown with the letters PARMA in the centre.
Of course what’s important is the taste and this long drying process, using just pork, salt and air, creates a ham that is very low in fat content, containing essential mineral salts, vitamins, antioxidants and easily digestible proteins. British diners will probably be familiar with the Palma Ham and melon appetizer but it’s far more versatile and can be eaten throughout the day in different ways. Here are some suggestions:
Enjoy Parma Ham on slices of avocado toast, savoury waffles, or in huevos rancheros with crushed chili and lime avocado.
Use Parma Ham to add flavour to healthy recipes, such as bagels with Parma Ham and cream cheese, salad with Parma Ham, apple and lettuce, or a Parma Ham potato soup.
A sparkling or fruity white wine is often recommended to complement the rich, sweet-salty flavour and silky texture of Parma Ham. For a classic antipasto, arrange some slices of Parma Ham on a plate, accompanied with figs.
Parma Ham can be used in the usual Italian dishes – try a fennel and Parma Ham pasta bake, or penne pasta with Parma Ham. I’ve been making my own pizza recently and I have to say that a simple topping of tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parma Ham with olive oil and rocket is a world-beater.
The cheat’s way of making pizza dough is to use a breadmaker, then it’s just a matter of letting it double in size before rolling out into individual pizza bases. Actually you should really stretch the dough rather than using a rolling pin but that’s a fine art. Watch lessons on YouTube to get the idea.
Preheat the oven as hot as it can get. Soften onions then add off-the-shelf passata and infuse with chilli and oregano for 15 minutes. Seal the pizza base with olive oil and then dollop all over, reaching right to the edges. Dot with mozzarella and slices of Parma Ham, then bake for 12-15 minutes, until the base is golden and the cheese is bubbling. Take out of the oven, add some rocket and drizzle with olive. Eat while hot and enjoy.
For more information, please visit www.prosciuttodiparma.com
To find a Parma Ham Specialist deli in your area, visit https://specialist.prosciuttodiparma.com/
To read Rupert Parker’s article on Parmesan Cheese click here…