A few weeks ago, I was invited to Parma by Discover the Origin, to learn more about the production of two of Parma's most famous products – Parma ham and parmesan cheese, known locally as prosciutto de Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Both have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which means that only products made in the area, to very strict and specific rules, can be labelled as Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Our small group were invited to take a tour of two producers, where we learned about all the stages of production of these two very traditional and delicious products. Both Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano have been produced for many, many centuries employing methods that have been honed over time and handed down from generation to generation.
The PDO rules not only control methods of production but also the source and quality of ingredients. There are also very strict quality assurance processes that ensure that any products that don't quite match the standards, even if they're pretty darn close, are not permitted to be sold under the PDO names.
We discovered, in the two factories we visited, that producers today are carefully combining modern technology with traditional methods. The advantages to modernisation include being able to more carefully control conditions to produce a more consistently excellent product, and being less dependent on the weather – for example modern refrigeration rooms can produce the exact temperature and humidity conditions that were once only possible during winter.
Below are some images from the Parma ham producer, and a walk-through the production process. I'll post about Parmigiano-Reggiano soon.
Making Parma Ham
The pork, which must be born, raised and slaughtered in authorised farms and slaughterhouses in specified regions, is delivered on a regular basis.
The maestro salatore (master of salt) takes the fresh pork, puts it through a machine that applies a salt wash and massages the meat, and then carefully applies dry salt by hand.
The hams are then stored (in temperature and humidity controlled rooms) for a about a week. Residual salt is removed, another layer applied and they are stored again for another couple of weeks. The maestro salatore checks and adjusts them daily to ensure that just enough salt is absorbed to cure the meat without making it excessively salty – Parma ham is known for it's sweet flavour.
The hams are then hung for 70 days, during which the meat darkens. (It returns to a pale pink colour towards the end of the curing process).
The hams are washed with warm water (in enormous showers that look like car washes), brushed to remove excess salt and then hung in drying rooms.
The next stage is the initial curing, in large ventilated rooms that recreate the conditions in the open-windowed upper floors of local houses, where hams were traditionally hung to cure over winter. This phase lasts about three months, and by the end of it, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened.
Hams are marked at various stages of the process. There is a mark to show the originating farm where the pork was bred and raised, and one to show the slaughterhouse where it was butchered. The Parma ham producer also marks the ham, buying special metal pins from The Parma Ham Consortium, that are stapled into the hams.
The consortium was set up in 1963, on the initiative of 23 producers who wanted to find a way of safeguarding the genuine product and image of Parma ham. The PDO was awarded in 1996, one of the first agreed by the EU for a meat product. There are now nearly 200 members and the consortium is a marketing as well as quality assurance body.
Next, the exposed surface is softened and protected with a paste of minced fat, salt and pepper.
The hams are then hung again for their final curing, which lasts between 12 and 30 months.
After 12 months curing, an inspector from the Istituto Parma Qualità (an independent quality assurance body) checks every single ham meticulously, to ensure that it meets standards.
We watched an inspector at work, piercing each ham in at least five spots using a special horse bone needle and sniffing the needle after each puncture. The needle itself is quite specialist; horse bone is porous to just the right degree that it takes in the smell from the piercing, holds it long enough for the inspector to smell it, but allows it to dissipate before the next piercing. The speed at which the inspector worked was impressive!
Working alongside the inspector, others apply additional fat to complete the protection of the hams.
Only hams which pass the test are then fire-branded with the Parma ham mark.
During my short stay in Parma, I sampled quite a bit of Parma ham and really appreciated being able to learn about how it is created. I hope to share some great Parma ham recipes with you in coming weeks.