Parma - A Look at Italian Cheese and Ham

Martin Pilkington headed to Parma, Italy for Selectism to get to grips with two of the cities great exports. Parma Ham and, in Part 2, Parmesan Cheese. It’s a hard life. Going behind the scenes, we’re given an insight into the intricacies of producing these icons of the Italian food scene.

What is most amazing in the North Italian city of Parma is not the magnificent Renaissance art in its churches, nor the medieval houses that dot the cityscape. It’s that there are still thin people in this city where food is King, or, given its history, Duke.

I was in the former Duchy for Selectism to see how its two greatest delicacies are made, those being Parma Ham aka Prosciutto, and Parmesan Cheese, or Parmigiano-Reggiano. As the most important factor in the quality of both is time, and we were there for just three days, I only got a flavor of the skill and care it takes to make them – but what flavor.

There are of course many links between the two products, not least the original local salt supply that was a major factor in their development back in the Roman era. Much of the surplus whey from the cheese-making goes to feed the pigs which produce the hams, improving its taste and texture.

The production of Parma Ham has the feel of slow-motion choreography. The meat making a slow march through the plant from the moment of delivery to, at the opposite end of the building, the time when it is finally packaged ready for despatch.

In the temperature-controlled stainless steel plant of producer Gennari Vittorio SpA we observe the arrival of freshly butchered hams, the hind-legs of large breed pigs kept on farms within a strictly limited area. They are handled delicately to avoid bruising, carefully pressed to remove remaining blood. Then once salted the pink flesh begins its journey through the building, one that can last three years or more. Elke Fernandez, Head of the marketing department of Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, the trade body, explains how this meat that is never cooked does not deteriorate as it ages ready for sale: “The loss of water and the natural action of enzymes removes any danger of harmful bacteria or other undesirables surviving.” Nature has to do the preserving, as no artificial preservatives are used – no nitrates, or sulphur compounds get near the hams.

We see how a horse-bone needle is used to prick the hams for the – independent – tester to smell and check that it is progressing to plan. Rejected hams will be sold without the prized ducal crown branded on the skin thus not marketed as Parma ham. An inspector checks 1800 hams a day. Then there are the roving specialists, moving between factories, who anoint the exposed meaty end of the ham – temporarily during one phase of its preparation – with a mixture of pork fat, rice flour and salt and pepper.

The hams move between rooms at different temperatures, ageing gracefully for the minimum of 12 months required to qualify as Parma Ham, but with many matured for another year or even two. In the building at that time there were 180,000 hams at differing stages of readiness. That’s a lot of ham.

A tasting session the previous evening was revelatory on three levels. The first was the clear difference between the 12-month ham and a 24-month version: not a question of good and bad, but of different qualities. The younger was easier to chew, moister, a rather more appealing pink color too. The fat in it flowed easily, filling the mouth. Its older relation was meatier, redder, more effort needed to bite through it but that effort rewarded with a deeper flavor.

Second revelation was the wine to accompany Prosciutto. I had always paired it with a robust red, but in Parma they swear by locally-grown Malvasia, a frizzante wine i.e. with a background fizz. As you’d expect, they were right, the fragrant wine helped the delicious fat seep out of the ham and onto my taste-buds, and at the same time cleansed the palate for the next mouthful.

Third revelation, thanks to the chef at the Ombre Rosso enoteca in the narrow streets of Parma’s old town, was how well the ham could be combined with Parmesan cheese, one cheese-mousse-filled basket of ham a particular favorite. More to come on this world class cheese in the second part of my report.


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