Curing hams in Parma, Italy, is a time-honored craft.
It’s a cool, clear autumn morning, bright with sunshine. On the crisp air is a distinctive autumnal aroma from deep in my childhood—the salty-sweet smell of curing pork, sharply recalling rolling hills and graying wooden smokehouses.
The only hitch is, this is not the rural piedmont of Carolina but of Parma, Italy’s gastronomical center and the birthplace of two of the world’s most famous food products—Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma.
That last is the reason for the sense of homecoming. I grew up with an equally rooted and celebrated tradition of dry-salt-cured ham, and that salty-sweet aroma once permeated the Carolina hills, defining autumn as much as turning leaves and migrating birds. But just as the ancient Emilian countryside is very different from those hills of my childhood, so are the hams; I’ve come to Parma to experience why first hand.
Legend attributes the unique aroma and flavor of prosciutto di Parma to two things: the chestnut- and sea-scented air unique to the region and a by-product of the regions other celebrated food, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Once upon a time, the rich whey leftover from the cheese making was fed to the local pigs, and it was this diet that gave the hams their reputed sweetness and character.
Today, this is no longer true; it would be impossible to raise enough pigs within the region to meet production demands, but the breeds approved for these hams must be Italian, grown within a small, 11-region area—notably Emiglia-Romagna and nearby Lombardy. Since most of the pigs in this area are fed on whey of some sort, the symbiotic link between the two industries remains an important factor in the quality of the hams.
But setting aside chestnut-scented air and pigs sweetened on a diet of whey, there was still something missing—and the aroma curling from a wood-fired pizza oven brought it home: those dilapidated smokehouses back home. As most any Southerner knows, our dry-cured hams are smoked; the celebrated prosciutto of Parma is not.
From Pig Haunch To Legend: The Cure and Care of Prosciutto di Parma
As soon as the haunch is delivered, it is trimmed to create the classic “chicken leg” shape that sets Prosciutto di Parma apart from other hams. Each one is individually massaged, salted and put in cold storage for a week.
At the end of the first week, they get a second massage and salting. Though today machines do most of the job, the salting is finished by hand, since the quality of the finished prosciutto depends on getting an exact amount of salt around the bone.
Both dry and damp sea salt are used to ensure a slow, even absorption—dry on exposed meat and damp on the skin, since each has a different absorption. The hams then go back into cold storage for two weeks, resting on individual trays without touching one another. They aren’t stacked as other dry-cured hams often are, since stacking accelerates salt absorption and moisture loss, and the makers of prosciutto di Parma believe that, for the best and sweetest hams, that process must be slow and even.
After two weeks, the hams are hung to rest for about 60 to 70 days—depending on the quality of the pork and time of year. Afterwards, they’re washed of excess surface salt and prepared for preseasoning in storerooms where the temperature, light and amount of fresh air are strictly controlled for about seven months.
Finally, any exposed meat not covered by skin is coated with lard and lightly peppered before it goes through the final curing for a total of 15 to 17 months.
Through the whole process, each ham is carefully monitored but still can’t be branded “Prosciutto di Parma” until it has been “sounded” by a master tester. Using a needle made from horse bone (which holds fragrance only a few seconds), the inspector tests five critical points in the outer fat, center flesh and area around the bone. A keen nose can immediately sniff out a ham with internal problems that the eye can’t see.