My visit to Parma and the Festival of Parma Ham was sponsored by the Parma Ham Consortium. This is the first of two posts on Parma ham. Check out the second post, which is my recipe for fantastic fried bread dumplings, gnocco fritto. (You do NEED to make them and they are easy too). One of my favourite things and a perfect snack.
Emilia Romagna is a much visited part of Italy for me. Known as the belly of Italy, you can see the attraction. Home to some of the most recognised Italian food products: parma ham, parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar of Modena. Mortadella is originally from Bologna too, and that most recognised of British dishes spaghetti Bolognese is inspired by the original Tagliatelle with Ragu from Emilia Romagna, and it takes its name from Bologna. Although best not to mention spaghetti bolognese to anyone there, it tends to enrage them (and when you have the pasta there, you can see why).
Emilia Romagna is a joy to travel around. Small cities with their own proud specialities are easily accessible by train (or by car if you prefer). There are common threads in each city. You will always see tagliatelle with ragu, stuffed pastas like tortelloni, passatelli (beautiful parmesan noodles) and cappelletti in brodo, a gorgeous small stuffed pasta in rich broth. Added to all of this, each city will have its own specialities. In Parma, those are specifically Parma ham and parmigiano reggiano (aka parmesan cheese).
Festival del Prosciutto / The Festival of Parma Ham
Each September, the people of Parma celebrate their ham with gusto at the Festival del Prosciutto. In its 20th year this year, the Festival of Parma Ham is a celebration of all things prosciutto di parma with a pop up bistro downtown serving freshly sliced ham and excellent ham sandwiches packed with it. There are also Finestre Aperte, or Open Doors, where Parma ham producers open their facilities to the public for tours and tastings.
What makes Parma ham special?
The production of Parma ham is highly regulated and controlled via regular inspection. It has a designated PDO (since 1986), a Protected Designated of Origin. A PDO is only awarded when there is a group of producers who can prove that their product can only be made in their geographic area and in a particular traditional way. Champagne has it, parmesan has it, and Parma ham has it too. You can recognise Parma ham by a crown stamp on the skin of the leg. In Europe only this ham can be sold as Parma ham and it is very tightly regulated.
Parma ham is simply Italian pork leg cured with pure sea salt and time. The pork is from Large White, Landrace and Duroc pigs fed on maize, barley and whey from the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Each leg is approximately 8-10kg weight. Traditionally the process would start when the weather changed with the advent of winter, now with refrigeration it is possible to make it year round.
Finestre Aperte / Open Doors at G. Tanaro in Langhirano
I visited G. Tanaro in Langhirano during the Parma ham festival as part of the Finestre Aperte, and was brought on an excellent tour of the facility by owner Paolo Tanara. His father Giancarlo started the facility, and they still make the ham as his father did. Paolo detailed the procedure and brought us through the ageing rooms. The smell is sublime as it ages, every food lover should stand in a Parma ham ageing cellar at one point in their lives. Divine. The tour finishes with a tasting of their wonderful ham. These tours are also available to the public at the time of the Festival of Parma Ham.
How is Parma Ham made?
The legs are salted on arrival by the maestro salatore (a highly trained salt master) and hung in temperature and humidity controlled conditions. A second coating of salt is applied a week later, and the legs are left to hang for up to 18 days. The hams then hang for between 60 and 90 days in refrigerated and humidity controlled rooms. The hams are then washed and dried to remove excess salt and impurities before being dried on frames in long rooms lined with windows which are opened when the temperature and humidity are favourable. This is key to the flavour of the ham. After about 3 months the exposed parts of the ham are greased with pork lard and salt to protect them, and then the hams are dried further in ham cellars, rooms with less air and light. All Parma ham is cured for a minimum of 1 year (from the first day of salting), up to 3 years.
The hams and facility are inspected many times over the process, both internally and by consortium inspectors. Any hams that do not pass muster are discarded. The quality of the ham is tested using a needle made from a horse bone. It sounds medieval, but the horse bone communicates the smell of the ham as it ages purely and directly to the trained nose of the ham makers.
And now you know why it tastes so good, right? Parma ham and your many makers, I salute you.
For more information on the Festival of Parma Ham please see: http://www.festivaldelprosciuttodiparma.com/en/