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Charcuterie Essentials: Prosciutto di Parma Spotlight
December 8, 2018

Charcuterie Essentials: Prosciutto di Parma Spotlight

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The history of Prosciutto di Parma stretches back to Roman Empire days, and was first written specifically about in the 14th century in "Libro de Cocina." The ancient production methods, region, and strict traditions continue today in a carefully-regulated modern approach to maintaining that tradition safely and with consistent quality. The Consortium for Prosciutto di Parma (CPP), existing since 1963, although the Prosciutto di Parma PDO began in 1996, enforces strict PDO rules which provide rigorous quality control and traceability of the hams. Their final stamp of the 5-pointed Ducal crown comes only at the very end of a long curing process, the legs already adorning tattoos from the breeder and the slaughterhouse as well as the CPP-stamped metal grommet bearing the month and year at the start of curing. This is how we can tell how aged the ham is when we receive it. Under the final crown stamp is the producer code, and our personal producer is Pio Tosini.

Here, piggy piggy... The specially-bred Large White, Landrance & Duroc breeds in the 10 central-north regions of Italy are fed a regulated diet of grains, cereals, and the whey from Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese production, all to ensure a heavy pig in excellent health. They must be at least 9 months old and 308 pounds at slaughter. Most of the pigs that supply Pio Tosini come from the Po Valley bordering the north of the Parma Province.

Parma Province
Within a very small, well-designated pocket of the Po Valley in Northern Italy lie the ancient hills of Parma Province, with likely the best conditions in the world for curing ham. The Mediterranean climate and mountain-to-valley breezes provide perfect humidity and air circulation for this well-perfected curing art. Note: I will now refer to "Prosciutto di Parma" as "PdP," for the sake of brevity... The one and only PdP that we purvey is from Pio Tosini, a 113-year-old family producer of PdP in the best climatic pocket of the Parma Province, Langhirano. 100 of the 160 PdP producers are located here, a testimonial to its prime location. Ferrante Tosini, the founder, settled there in 1952, and built the genius curing hall that is still in use today. His son, Pio, provided the company name, and the current operation is run by Ferrante's grandson, his cousin, and his uncle.

Let me jump right into the PdP production process. First of all, Pio Tosini receives the fresh hams, and pays extra for the right of refusal, as inspection of the quality, especially of the fat layer, is essential. Tattoos and stamps connoting provenance of the breeder, the pig's birth month, the slaughterhouse identification, etc., are already adorning the hams upon arrival. A metal grommet bearing the curing start time is attached to the hyde, designating the ham's age for the end-user's reference. Pio Tosini also brands the hyde with their company insignia, a simple acorn motif.

First, a master salter (maestro salatore) applies moist salt to the hyde and dry salt to the exposed flesh. The hams then rest for five days in 80% humid refrigeration. At this time, the hams go through a gentle massage in a machine which ensures expulsion of any remnant blood in the leg. The second salting now occurs, the salt only applied to exposed flesh at the large end of the ham. At 75% humidity, the legs rest for about 20 days while the salt gradually infiltrates the leg deeper every day. The essential fat layer so seriously scrutinized in inspection and receiving is paramount now in that regulation of salt migration throughout the leg.

The hams then go through a 60-90 day resting period hanging in cold rooms. After 60 days, the protruding end of the bone gets a trim and the hams are then transferred to higher-humidity, colder room, mimicking the pre-refrigeration-era winter conditions that the hams historically would have endured. As the salt has at this point thoroughly permeated the leg, they are washed and brushed in warm water to remove the salty crust, then dried out for a few days before entering the initial curing phase.

The hams have finally arrived in the naturally-ventilated curing hall where they naturally dry-cure while hanging on racks for three months. A constant, gradual drying of the hams occurs, also causing an over-drying of the surface flesh. A paste of lard, rice flour, salt and pepper is used to condition the exposed flesh, providing a protective buffer layer during the curing process. This is known as “greasing.”

“Greasing” stage
Final curing begins at month 7. By this time, the hams have progressed down to the lower light, lower ventilation portions of the curing hall. During this final curing stage of the process, the “rufino" forms, a wooly patch where beneficial microorganic stuff is happening, as with a cave-aged cheese. Pio Tosini cures to a 500-day minimum (Parma requires 400 day minimum cure); The longest cure tends to be 36 mo. We sell the 20-month and sometimes the 24-month. More time on the bone, more flavor… Consortium testing of 20% of a batch is a reliable and consistent process used with the benefit of horse bone. Yes, sharp, porous horse bone can alert an expert to any off-aromas from any of five classic test spots on a Parma ham… Finally, the hams are pressed into shape for slicing, foiled, and vacuum sealed for market. The finished, sublime ham, having lost over 25% of its original weight in the name of cured transformation, is now an umami-rich beautifully preserved delicacy to be leisurely enjoyed.

By the way, there are no nitrites or nitrates added in the PdP process; it is simply not allowed. This is only the case with a few of the traditionally cured hams, however.

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