Prosciutto translates from Italian into English as “ham.” This is not an accurate and complete translation, however, as Prosciutto di Parma indicates a dry-cured pork that is unique to Parma, Italy. To call it ham does not do it justice. This is not the ham one sees in the supermarket that comes in a gelatinous covering. Prosciutto di Parma is the result of culinary artistry and strict guidelines.
By law ham bearing the name Prosciutto di Parma may only be produced and cured in and around the countryside near Parma, Italy. And, only Italian pigs are allowed. Each step in the production, from the breeding of the pigs to the final packaging is controlled by the Istituto Parma Qualità (I.P.Q.). Only the I.P.Q. has the authority to brand the finished ham with the seal of Parma’s five-pointed crown, indicating that the meat has cleared the rigorous standards required in production.
Prosciutto di Parma has been awarded the Protected Designation of Origin by the European Community designating it as a high-quality European food made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region.
Prosciutto di Parma is all natural and as such, it is one of the first adult foods that babies are given to eat in Italy. There are no additives or nitrates. Even water is restricted from the process. The only ingredients are pigs, salt, air and time. And only the hindquarters are used in the curing process. No shoulder meat. No pork bellies.
Producing Prosciutto di Parma is not for the impatient and can take up to 3 years. The process is documented and traceable from the birth of the pig to the market.
The first step requires Italian pig breeders to place a mark on both rear legs of a young pig within 30 days of it’s birth. The mark indicates the pig’s place of birth, month of birth and a breeder’s code. This is to insure that only Italian pigs are utilized.
After slaughter, each leg is marked with a code identifying the slaughter house and a metal seal, attached to each ham during the salting stage, bears the Consorzio’s acronym (CPP) and the date at which processing began.
To begin the curing process, the legs are salted by a professional salt master or “maestro salatore.” The “first salt” uses two types of salt depending on the portion of the leg. After salting, the leg is refrigerated (1°C – 4°C) at a humidity level of 80% for a week. The “second salt” occurs after the week of cold hanging. After the second salting the leg hangs in cold storage for another 15 to 18 days depending on the size and weight of the leg. Salt is the only preservative allowed. No chemical additives. No nitrates. No sugar. No water. Only salt.
After the second salting and curing, the legs are cleaned to remove the excess salt. The legs are then hung on frames called “scalere” in a drying room for 7 months. The drying rooms must have large windows to allow the outside temperature and humidity to gradually dry the legs. Prosciutto producers will tell you that this open air drying period is crucial to the process. The combination of the Parma area air, temperature and humidity cannot be replicated elsewhere in the world.
The salting process is monitored to insure that the ham absorbs the minimum amount of salt needed to preserve it. At the end of the curing process the ham may loose more than a quarter of its weight through moisture loss. The process helps to concentrate the flavor and leaves the meat tender and aromatic.
In the 7th month, the legs are transferred to the cellars. The reduced air, light and humidity complete the curing. By law Prosciutto di Parma is cured for a minimum of 1 year from date of the first salting. Some are cured for as long as 3 years.
Every step of the curing process is documented. At the end of the curing process (400 day minimum) the ham and the documents of production are inspected.
Finally, inspectors test each ham with the horse bone needle to determine whether the appearance, color, and aroma of the final product meets the quality standards.
After clearing the standards, an inspector then brands each leg with the five-pointed crown signifying the ham as Prosciutto di Parma.
The main door of Parma’s 13th-century cathedral portrays depictions of each month of the year. The month of November is identified by the slaughtering of a pig. To this day November is known as “November Porc” and all over the Emilia-Romagna region you will find festivals celebrating pork, pork products and particularly, Prosciutto di Parma.
Italians serve Prosciutto di Parma in thin slices. It can be uncooked (dry cured) which is called prosciutto crudo or cooked, called prosciutto cotto. it is typically served as a starter to the meal. In Parma, it comes with ‘torta fritta,” parmesan cheese, fruit and wine. It is usually served as a starter to the main meal. It is delicious and after you have had it, I think it will be difficult to eat any other imposter.