When I started traveling to Italy, I always wondered how they actually make Parma Ham (and mortadella too!). When I walked around any small town in Italy I always saw large legs of ham hanging from the ceiling. More often than not, they were stamped with a crown shaped marking that bears a single word: “Parma.” But, how did they get there?
What is Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto di Parma, or more generally, Parma ham, has been around since Roman times. There are stories from 100 BC referencing the unique flavor of the air-dried pork from the area surrounding Parma. At the time, pork was dried to extend its life and prevent it from spoiling.
A group of Parma ham producers created a Consortium, Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, in the 1970s, to control the quality of prosciutto. In 1996, the European Union gave the DOP designation on Prosciutto di Parma. Like all DOP and IGP products, the Consortium regulates the types of pigs that can be used, what the pigs are fed, and how the ham itself is produced.
What Are The Ingredients in Parma Ham
The Consortium likes to say there are only four ingredients in Parma ham: Italian pigs, salt, air, and time. In reality it’s really only two ingredients, although air and time are also key components. Parma ham is made by curing a leg of pork with nothing but sea salt. This increases the tenderness of the meat, and gives it a characteristic sweet flavor.
The production process is overseen by a maestro salatore, or salt master, which has to be the coolest sounding title for a ham maker. After receiving the hind legs of the pig, they are thoroughly covered, and to some extent massaged, with massive amounts of sea salt. Over the next few weeks, the legs are hung in refrigerated rooms, or drying rooms. The maestro salatore will clean and re-salt the hams as they cure and age.
How They Age Parma Ham
Over the next 3 months, the hams are hung in large, well ventilated rooms, with windows at the end. This allows the ham to be exposed to the climate of Parma, and the air: the fourth “ingredient” in Parma ham.
Similar to the Parmigiano Reggiano aging rooms, the smell is intoxicating. Often, the Parma Hams are hung in rows a half a dozen hams high, and dozens of hams long. Legs of ham as far as the eye can see. When we visited a prosciutto aging room for the first time, Eric was, literally, in hog heaven!
As the months wear on, the meat starts to change color. Whereas initially the hams are bright pink, soft, and tender, the meat darkens, dries, and ultimately is hardened. The Consortium dictates that Parma ham must be cured at least one year, which is timed from the date of the first salting—although it’s possible to have Prosciutto di Parma aged for as long as 3 years or more.
How They Certify Parma Ham
When ready, an inspector from the Consortium arrives to test each and every leg of ham. The inspector pierces the leg at five specific points with a thin horse bone needle, smelling the bone after each time it is removed from the ham. By smelling the meat, with a highly trained nose, it’s possible to confirm the quality of the ham.
It is only after the leg passes inspection, and is fire branded with the signature five point crown, that the ham officially becomes Prosciutto di Parma.
It’s all a fascinating process, and it is understandable why Prosciutto di Parma has the reputation it does around the world.
Check out our YouTube Video about Prosciutto di Parma
How to Get Your Copy of
The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna
There is more to learn about what to eat in Emilia Romagna. Parma ham is just one of the meats discussed in the book! I’ve covered a lot of our travels in Emilia Romagna in our blog over the last few years, but I took it up a notch and wrote a book about what to eat in Emilia Romagna!
The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna is available for Kindle on Amazon ($9.99), as well as in paperback on Amazon ($12.99). It is available on Amazon in the US, as well as throughout Europe. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
Heading to Parma?
Where to Stay in Parma: Get more hotel recommendations here.
What to do in Parma: Book a culinary tour with Food Valley.
Learn more: Get the only guide you would ever need for Parma, the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, from Amazon. Or, get a copy of Pellegrino Artusi’s The Art of Eating Well to learn to cook traditional Italian cuisine at home.