In the Parma region of Italy, you will not be able to go a day without encountering prosciutto in your breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner offerings. Prosciutto is an Italian word that literally translates as “ham,” but it is most commonly used to refer to the salt and air-cured variety of ham that is frequently found on our charcuterie boards.
While prosciutto is produced in other regions of Italy, such as San Daniele, the prosciutto produced in Parma is highly regarded, and its production is regulated through the use of a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) designation. Prosciutto di Parma is a designation that recognizes the traditional methods used in the production of prosciutto in Parma; there is even a consortium that ensures that producers adhere to rigorous standards in order for their products to be labeled as such.
The following is an interview with Roberto Fracchioni, a chef and culinary school professor — who also happens to be the Canadian brand ambassador for Prosciutto di Parma — to learn more about the production of this ubiquitous cured meat (and why it tastes so darn good).
Pigs used for breeding
Starting with heritage breeds of free-range pigs, the process for producing Prosciutto di Parma is aided by a special ingredient that is cleverly derived from a byproduct of another popular food item in Parma: whey from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
“This only happens in Parma because Parmigiano Reggiano is only made in Parma, and they don’t transport the whey outside of the region,” explains Fracchioni. “This only happens in Parma because Parmigiano Reggiano is only made in Parma, and they don’t transport the whey outside of the region.” After the hogs reach a certain age and size, which is usually around nine months, they are slaughtered and their legs are trimmed of excess fat to give them the rounded shape that we’ve come to associate with whole prosciutti (whole prosciutto).
Because salt is the only ingredient that can be used to make Prosciutto di Parma, salting the hams is a time-consuming and difficult task. Most prosciuttificios, or prosciutto manufacturing facilities, have only one maestro salatore, or salt master, who uses his hands to apply a precise amount of sea salt to the hams before wrapping them in parchment. “There’s one guy who salts every single ham,” explains Roberto Fracchioni. “It’s a tradition in our family.” A master salatore can salt up to 2,500 hams in a single day when production is at its peak. “He’s using coarse sea salt, which is causing his hands to turn red and raw.”
Fracchioni explains why the position of maestro salatore is so highly regarded in the salatorio community. “If he makes a mistake, the ham will go bad and hundreds of dollars will be thrown out the window,” he says. “If he uses too much salt, it will become dehydrated. If you use too little, it will rot.” In order to learn the craft of salting, apprentices must work alongside a maestro for up to a decade in order to learn the long cycles of aging that are required. In Fracchioni’s opinion, “you don’t know if you made a mistake until two years later.” “It’s not an easy apprenticeship,” says the instructor.
Legs are salted and placed in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms for about a week before any residual salt is removed and a second coating of salt is applied. The hams are then escorted back into the cold room. The control of temperature is critical at this time, when the meat is still fresh, because hams that are kept in temperatures that are too warm will spoil, and hams that are kept in temperatures that are too cold will not absorb as much salt.
After another 60 to 90 days in the refrigerator, the salt is washed off the hams’ legs and they are moved to a curing room, where they are hung on racks for an initial period of drying before being sliced and served. As of right now, there is no refrigeration or mechanical air circulation in the building. Temperature and humidity control are accomplished the old-fashioned way: by opening and closing windows as needed. According to Roberto Fracchioni, there is a “gentle breeze that comes off of the ocean.” In the following section, the road travels through the Apennine Mountains, where the air is perfumed at certain times of year when the olive trees are in blossom. It’s the air that blows over top of the prosciutti that imparts the flavor that it requires.” The air-curing process takes approximately three months, during which time the exposed surfaces of the meat dry out and harden.
The smearing and aging process
A layer of rendered pork fat is applied to the exposed parts of the legs after they have been cured. This softens the surface layers and helps to prevent moisture loss even further, preventing the hams from becoming overly dry. Having been larded, the hams are then hung in a dark cellar for the final stage of aging before being served.
A weekly inspection is performed during this time period, and it involves poking multiple holes in the ham with an inspection needle and sniffing the hole for signs of potential spoilage or other defects in the meat. A needle made of horse bone (yes, that is bone from a horse) is used for this because it absorbs scents quickly and releases them quickly after they have been absorbed. Generally, hams must be cured for a minimum of 400 days, beginning on the first day of salting, but some can be cured for up to three years, depending on the species.
“The best way to appreciate it, for people who are not familiar with it, is to eat it raw,” Fracchioni advises those who are unfamiliar with it. “You carve it and serve it with crusty Italian bread,” says the chef. He recommends avoiding herbed bread, such as rosemary focaccia, in order to get the most out of the prosciutto’s flavors. Following that, the possibilities are virtually limitless and extend far beyond the charcuterie board.
Prosciutto is a versatile ingredient in Italy, according to Fracchioni, who claims that it can be prepared in a plethora of ways. In a variety of ways, everyone from the elderly Nonna in their kitchen preparing lunch for their 50-year-old son who hasn’t moved out of the house to the three-star Michelin restaurants uses it. It is possible to use end pieces to flavor soups and stocks, slices can be dried into chips and used as a garnish for salads, and prosciutto fat can be whipped and used in the same way as butter or transformed into a dressing.
It’s important to remember that, according to Fracchioni, each region in Italy is “fiercely loyal” to the products that it is known for producing while you’re there. “Food means more to an Italian than sports, more than anything else,” he says. “Italians value food above all else.” “When it comes to food, it’s a very serious business,” says the author. Expect to treat all of the regional Italian delicacies you eat with reverence and respect, which shouldn’t be a problem given how delicious almost everything produced in this country is.