Prosciutto di Parma
A quality product is rarely the result of a single night’s work. It’s carefully crafted over time, using standards that are almost (almost) impossibly high. By this definition, Prosciutto di Parma is the gold standard of Italian prosciutto and it has been for centuries: Parma ham has been crafted with the same painstaking care since Roman times. And it’s produced only in the province of Parma, Italy, whose regional idiosyncrasies make it possible to produce the highest quality hams using only four ingredients: specially-bred and fed Italian pigs, sea salt, air, and—the most important ingredient—time.
Quality that You Can Trace
Every leg of Prosciutto di Parma is 100 percent natural, with no additives or preservatives. It’s easily traceable through all stages of production and distinguished by the coveted Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) status. Every leg is identified by its famous logo, the Ducal Crown, the final branding and last step in the identification process that not only guarantees the highest quality and authenticity, but leaves the “signature” of each operator. And we’re not just talking sentimental authenticity: marks on the pork legs indicate origin, processor’s identification, and the date curing began—visual evidence of a totally transparent quality-control system.
Natural from the Start
Parma hams are made from the rear haunches of castrated male Landrace and Duroc pigs bred in north-central Italy, specifically for Prosciutto di Parma production. To qualify for Parma ham production, the pigs must be born and raised according to strict guidelines on approved farms in 10 regions of northern and central Italy. Their feed, too, is specially formulated (you are what you eat eats, after all). The pigs are fed a blend of cereal grains and whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production, which contributes to their full-bodied, complex flavor. There are currently 5,400 breeding farms in Parma, all of which are acknowledged and classified by the Instituto Parma Qualita (I.P.Q.). Pigs have to live within the geographical boundaries of the Parma production area, to qualify for slaughter they must be nine months old and weigh a minimum of 340 pounds.
10 Steps to Perfection
Before slaughter, the pig must:
- Be healthy
- Be rested
- Have fasted for 15 hours
The insulated leg is put in special cold stores, where it stays for 24 hours. This cooling phase:
- Lowers the leg temperature from 104°F to 32°F to maintain proper hygiene
- Makes trimming easier
Through trimming, some fat and skin are removed to give the ham its typical round “chicken leg” shape. In addition to aesthetics, trimming helps with the following salting phase. During the trimming phase, legs with even the smallest faults are discarded. With trimming, the leg loses 24 percent of its weight in fat and muscle.
Salt—the only preservative used in the production method—is crucial to the development of the Parma ham. The cooled and trimmed legs are sent from the slaughterhouses to the curing houses. (At this stage, it’s important that the legs have an adequate and uniform temperature, as a leg that is too cold doesn’t absorb enough salt, while a leg that is not cold enough may deteriorate.) Salting is carried out using both humid and dry salt: the skin is covered with humid salt, while the muscular pasts are covered with dry salt.
Legs are then put in a cold store at a temperature ranging from 34°F to 39°F, with a humidity level of approximately 80 percent. Legs stay in this store called “first salt” for six to seven days, after which residual salt is removed, and the legs are covered again with a thin coating of salt. Finally, the legs are put in another cold store called “second salt,” where they stay for 15 to 18 days, according to their weight. During this period, the leg slowly assimilates the salt and loses some humidity. At the end of the salting phase, the weight loss is approximately 3.5 to 4 percent.
Parma ham needs its beauty sleep. So after removing the residual salt, the legs are put to rest in stores (often aired) for 60 to 70 days at a humidity level of 75 percent and a temperature ranging from 34 °F to 41°F. During this phase, the ham has to “breathe” without becoming either too wet or too dry, all while the assimilated salt penetrates deeply and distributes uniformly inside the muscular mass. The weight loss during the rest phase amounts to approximately 8 percent to 10 percent.
6. Washing and Drying
What’s better after a long rest then a wash and dry? After resting, the Parma hams are washed with warm water to eliminate excess salt and impurities. The hams are then dried in natural conditions, taking in the sun, cool, dry air of the Parma region. (In Winter, when cold, wet, or humid conditions prevail, producers use special dryers.) This process lasts approximately one week.
The pre-curing phase is carried out in large rooms with windows on either side, with the hams hung on special wood frames called “scalere.” Windows aren’t just for the view. Airflow regulation is integral to the curing stage: windows are opened with regard the ratios of internal/external humidity and product humidity, allowing for a constant and gradual drying of the hams.
Pre-curing lasts about three months, after which the ham is beaten to improve its round “chicken leg” shape. Sometimes the cavity around the bare part of the bone is covered with pepper in order to keep the contact area dry. Weight loss during this phase amounts to about 8 percent to 10 percent.
In the “greasing” phase, the cavity around the bare part of the bone, the uncovered muscular mass, and possible chaps are covered in a mixture of lard, salt, and pepper (and sometimes ground rice). This softens the superficial muscular layers to prevent the external layers drying too rapidly; it also allows for further humidity loss.
In the seventh month of its development, the ham is transferred to the “cellars,” rooms with less air and light where the sounding, an essential phase in the “ham life” is carried out. A horse bone needle, which rapidly absorbs fragrances, is inserted in different parts of the ham and smelled by experts to verify the development final product.
By the end of the ageing period (a minimum of 12 months), the ham has lost most of its initial weight (about 28 percent) and acquired its inviting and delicate aroma. Only then are the Parma hams ready for the official stamp of certification: the fire-branding with the Ducal Crown.
Since the fire branding is the final guarantee that all the processing stages have been carried out correctly, the officers of the independent certifying body, the Istituto Parma Qualita (I.P.Q.) have to be on hand for the branding. The officers check the aging period from the registers and the seal on the ham and they ensure that the hams have conformed to all the processing procedures. Finally, they test each ham with the horse bone needle and issue a quality judgment based on the appearance, color, and aroma of the final product.
The Fine Art of Traditional Hand Slicing of Prosciutto di Parma
When hand slicing Prosciutto di Parma, it’s best to begin the cut near the hock of the prosciutto (a). The cuts must be parallel, following the lines indicated from the arrows so as to always leave a flat surface, with minimal irregularities. As you get close to the femoral bone (b) the leg is turned along the bone. Proceed to slice in the same direction, away from the hock, working toward the bone (c) following the same method. The area near the hip (d) is easily removed with a short knife.
Before every cut (by machine or knife) it is necessary to remove the skin near the point of the cut. Hand slicing is a difficult art, but it reinforces the ancient roots of Prosciutto di Parma. Not only does it provides a different eating experience than the paper thin slices created by a machine; the ritual of hand slicing allows you to appreciate the centuries of tradition behind Parma ham, bringing a taste of history to the product’s rich, natural savor. The slices cut from the knife follow the natural disposition of the ham’s fibers, their irregularity adding to various sensations to the palate. A good slicing knife has a sharp, long blade that is wide and thick, moderately flexible to adapt itself to the variations of the form of the prosciutto.
Prosciutto di Parma is typically sold as a boneless leg aged 14 to 30 months. It may also be sold bone-in or pre-sliced and packaged. A typical boneless leg weighs between 15 and 17 pounds and will yield an 85 to 90 percent servable portion. With a typical portion of 1 ounce (equivalent to 2 slices), a 15 pound leg will serve over 200 (very happy) guests.
Storage and Handling
A vacuum-packed leg can be stored up to six months, refrigerated 40°F to 45°F. Once the vacuum seal is broken and slicing begins, the ham will keep refrigerated for up to one month. Freezing is not recommended. But it’s likely the prosciutto will be eaten well before storage is required.