Parma ham (prosciutto di Parma) is one of Italy’s national treasures. Visiting Parma ham producers on customized tours of Italy is a fascinating experience that reveals secrets of this ancient quintessentially Italian product.
It is believed that origins of prosciutto di Parma go back to Etruscan times. In 100 BC Cato the Elder, celebrated statesman and historian, first mentioned the exquisite flavour of the air cured ham made near Parma, the area well-known to ancient Roman gourmands for its healthy fat pigs and excellent ham.
The production process has changed little since those days. Parma pigs must be of certain breeds, born and raised by authorised breeding farms located in central-northern Italy. Their diet is a blend of grains, cereals and whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which gives the prosciutto that distinctive flavor.
The pig legs are massaged with sea salt by highly skilled “salatore”. Salt is the only preservative used and, unlike with generic versions of prosciutto from elsewhere, no chemicals are allowed in the processing. After a week the meat is coated in salt by hand again. The amounts of salt, humidity of the storage rooms have been fine tuned over centuries. After more than two months of curing the hams are washed with water and hung in well ventilated rooms with large windows. When the outside temperature and humidity are right the windows are open and any connoisseurs will tell you that it is during this period that prosciutto di Parma absorbs the sweet aromatic breezes from the Apennines that makes it so special.
After seven months, the ham is transferred to rooms with less air and light to finish the process. Parma ham is cured for at least one year and, in some cases, as long as three years. Every stage of the processing is strictly regulated by law and the prosciutto is covered by a Protected Designation of Origin (D.O.P. in Italian).
During your customized tours of Italy remember that every fall, in September, local producers open their doors for the Festival del Prosciutto di Parma and visitors can enjoy free tastings in Parma’s main piazza!
Photos via Flickr by: Udo Schröter, Nicole Hanusek.