Prosciutto di Parma, or Parma Ham is one of Italy’s most famous exports next to olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano. The tender, intensely flavoured ham is readily available in UK supermarkets and is an ingredient used throughout the British dining scene from Michelin-starred restaurants to tiny high street cafés.
And the versatility of this ingredient sees it used in every meal of the day, from breakfast baguettes through to tarts, salads and adding a taste of the Mediterranean to traditional recipes such as Beef Wellington.
This ubiquity however, has seen Parma Ham become something of a victim of its own success, with consumers opting for a cheaper air dried ham, without realising the history and tradition that is intrinsic to the distinctive, authentic taste of Parma Ham.
The Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, means that the whole production process, from the types of pigs used, where they were born and their feed, through to the different stages of curing are all put through rigorous inspections.
Only hams that pass the stringent curing regulations approved by the EU can be marked with the prestigious Ducal Crown, the trademark of authentic Parma Ham.
How Parma Ham is Made
Only Large White, Landrace and Duroc breeds that have been born and reared in 10 select regions of central Northern Italy, and fed on quality food stuffs like maize, barley and discarded whey from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, are used to make Parma Ham.
The legs of ham are first cooled for 24 hours to firm up the meat, making it easier to trim the meat. After a day of cooling, the legs are trimmed into their distinctive ‘chicken leg’ shape. This will help with the salting process, but also gives the producers a chance to check the quality of the meat.
The cooled, trimmed legs are transferred into the curing house for salting. Here the legs are salted by hand; a humid salt covers the skin areas and a dry salt on the exposed areas of meat. They are stored at between 1°C and 4°C at 80% humidity for six to seven days.
Any residual salt is removed, a second salt layer applied and the legs are moved to another cool room for 15 to 18 days depending on their weight.
The legs then rest for 60 – 70 days in a store room with 75% humidity. Each store is regularly aired as the ham is allowed to breathe and the salt penetrates uniformly into the ham.
The hams are once more washed and dried over the course of a week and transferred to the pre-curing rooms. These are large, airy rooms with rows upon rows of trellis-like wooden frames called ‘scalere.’ Here they are hung for 3 months.
A mixture of lard, salt and pepper is applied to the meat areas not covered by skin to stop the ham from drying too quickly.
From here, the hams go to their final resting place before being quality checked. The cellars are similar to the curing rooms, but are darker and cooler. A horse bone needle is put into the hams to check that the texture and smell of the meat is correct.
The hams are then aged for a minimum of 12 months. Only after this term are the hams fire branded with the signature Ducal Crown. Over the whole process each ham will lose about 28% of its original weight.
Not only that, but Parma Ham is crammed with mineral salts, vitamins, anti-oxidants, easy-to-digest proteins and a low fat content in a product that is 100% natural.
So when your stocking up for this month’s festivities look for the Ducal Crown to make sure you’re getting a taste of the history and tradition of Italy.
Find out more about Parma Ham.
By Hannah Harman
"Each ham will lose about 28% of its original weight."