The first time I tasted Parma ham was in one of those old-fashioned little trattorias that have man-sized pepper mills. It came with melon, unsalted butter and bread. The sweet fattiness, the muted saltiness, the silky texture – it was love at first bite. People now seem to regard parma ham with fruit as a dull and passé ensemble, but I find it hard to resist.
Standing in a curing room recently – a cathedral-like place just outside Parma with hams hanging from the ceiling, a herby, porcine smell in the air – I was in awe at the trouble taken to produce my occasional treat. Parma ham is a DOP product and can only be produced in the area around Parma (Val Langhirano in the main) from specific breeds of pig fed (Landrace, Duroc and English White) on a particular diet that includes Parmesan whey and Parmigiano Reggiano offcuts. This area produces half of all the prosciutto crudo eaten in Italy, made by 190 firms or Prosciuttifici.
The curing is a reassuringly old-fashioned and simple process. Nothing is added except salt and time. The maestro salatore – master salter – assesses how much to apply instinctively (the meat mustn’t lose its sweetness so not too much goes on) and how to adjust the temperature and humidity around the ham. After salting twice, the ham is washed then goes through several stages of resting, drying and curing, first in fridges, then in high-windowed rooms and finally dark most cellars.
Next it is aged for at least a year, after which an inspector checks it by piercing it with a horse-bone needle. Just by smelling the needle he knows whether the ham is good enough. It is then fire-branded with a crown, the mark of parma ham, then sold, or aged further. In Parma I had a plateful of hams (more than the three little slices I allow myself at home) that had been aged for 18, 24 and 36 months.
When it comes to eating I would go the way of the Italians and not do much with it. The most purist producers I met said they didn’t even like it with fruit as they think it detracts from the flavour. (Though I have come round to thinking it’s much better with a perfect ripe pear than melon.) There are cooked dishes where its distinctive flavour still sings out – it’s lovely tossed with fresh pasta and a lemon infused cream – but simple assemblies are best, and salads are glorious.
Despite loving its flavour and having seen the perfectionism with which it is produced, I adore this product. Food that comes with this much care is priceless.
Why not try real Lambrusco with your Parma ham recipes?