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The Hams of Parma

by Patricia Guy
From the pages of Epicurean

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 Emlia, 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 flavor, 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 by-product of cheesemaking. Each pig is tattooed with the breeder's code and the date of its birth.

The hams arrive at the curing houses weighing 12-14 kilos. After they are analysed to ensure 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 about a week in a refrigerated chamber, which has a temperature of around 1 C to 4C (34 to 39 degrees F) and a relative humidity of 80% - 85%. The salt which 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 thorough examination at nine specific points throughout the production process. If the hams pass the first examination, they are ready to be resalted and put into a second cold storage room where they stay for 15 to 18 days. The temperature is kept at around 5 C (34 degrees F) 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 (34 and 41 degrees F), with a relative humidity of 75%. During their 7 to 8 week stay, the salt penetrates more deeply into the meat.

Then the hams are washed with warm (around 38 C - 100 degrees F) water to remove the excess salt. When they have dried thoroughly, they are moved to the curing rooms where they will stay for approximately 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 are 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 about 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 odors.

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 has been 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.

Parma Ham Recipes

The following recipes are courtesy of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.

(Serves 4)
7 oz. Parma Ham
4 small melons
7 oz. cheese flakes
1 T of coarsely ground pistachio nuts
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-pistacchio mixture. Close with the melon tops and keep cool until ready to serve.

Wine Suggestion: Sauvignon Blanc

5.25 oz. of Parma Ham (all in one piece, then diced)
3.5 oz. of sliced Parma Ham
8.75 oz. ricotta
5.25 oz. mascarpone
A small handful of chervil and sweet marjoram, finely chopped
Some pink peppercorns

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 peppercorns 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 film and put it in the fridge for two hours. Before serving, remove the transparent film and garnish with Parma Ham slices.

Wine Suggestion: An aromatic white, such as a Riesling

(Serves 4)
8 slices of Parma Ham
4 ears of corn
8.75 oz fresh cream
3.5 oz. Gorgonzola (or any mild blue cheese)
Sprinkling 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: A lightly oaked Chardonnay

(serves 6)
6 slices of turkey breast (21 oz.)
6 slices of Parma Ham
Parmigiano-Reggiano cut into cubes
2 eggs
Dry Marsala
Olive oil
White peppercorns

Flatten the turkey breasts, and season them with a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Cover each slice with a piece of Parma ham, and a spoonful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cubes, then fold the turkey pieces in half, forming a pocket. Press the edges together. Then brush the pockets (Duchesse) with beaten egg, and coat with flour. Brown them in a pan which has been coated with equal parts olive oil and butter. When the pockets have a uniform golden color, splash 1/2 cup of Marsala into the pan. Before the Marsala evaporates, add half a cup of cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook over a low heat until the meat is soft and the sauce is syrupy: in all it will take about 20 minutes. Transfer the pockets to a hot plate and serve immediately.

Wine Suggestion: A Northern Italian Merlot, or any light, fruity red wine

More Ham recipes from the Archive

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