How Parma ham is made
Ham, salt and air. That is all it takes to make Parma ham, or Prosciutto di Parma to give it its proper name. Sounds easy doesn’t it?
Calling it easy though would be a huge disservice to the skill and mastery of the staff at Ruliano S.P.A. in Riano di Langhirano, near Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna province of Italy.
We visited this small producer as part of our food tour of Italy and drove the 40 minutes from Parma, up into the picturesque hills where the factory is located. This remote location is key to the process of making the ham. The air comes up from the sea, over the surrounding mountains and wraps itself around the handing legs of ham to help give them their amazing flavour.
I say small producer however they still produce 2,000 legs of Prosciutto di Parma every year. This is small in comparison to some of their competitors but seemed an awful lot to us.
2,000 legs a year
Each of the 2,000 legs, which come from free range, local (this is very important) large white pigs, is checked by hand as it arrives at the factory prior to preparation. They are then washed and salted by hand and hung in a large, and I mean large, fridge for a week. Sea salt is the only preservative added, there are no nitrates used here.
The purpose of the salt is to draw the water out of the meat, thus curing it and meaning it will last for a long time. Overall a leg of ham will lose 25% of its weight through the curing process.
After the week the legs are washed again, re-salted and hung for a further 15 days. They are then moved to a humidity controlled, refrigerated room and left hanging for 70 days.
After this time a wonderful, robotic, ceiling hung conveyor belt moves the hanging legs into a huge lift. The lift goes up to the first floor incredibly slowly in order to prevent the legs being moved around and touching each other. Once upstairs, the hams are smeared by hand in pig fat. This coats the meat and prevents a crust forming on the outside and air getting to the inside which would rot the meat.
Maturation’s what you need…
The legs are then moved to the maturation room. This room is ginormous, has thousands of legs hanging in it and has electrically controlled windows all down one side. It is from these windows that the third ingredient, air, comes quite literally in. The windows open automatically when the temperature outside is perfect and shut again when it isn’t.
With all this technology you would have expected that when the Consortium, who control the processes and quality of product, test each and every leg, they would have some marvellous hi-tech gadget to help them. No, instead of an electronic probe, a horse bone (yes, the bone from a horse) is inserted 5 times into every piece of Parma ham. Instead of this amazing probing device performing some biological assessment of the meat, the chap from the Consortium simply smells the bone after is is removed from the leg.
Such is their skill, they can tell instantly by the smell if the leg is good and is therefore stamped with the distinctive 5 point crown, otherwise it is discarded. In a high-tech world, it’s refreshing to see age old skills retained.
The hams remain in the maturation room for a minimum of 10 months meaning a total maturation time of at least 16 months. Ruliano offer Prosciutto di Parma 16, 18, 20 and 24 months of age.
Once mature, the ham is boned by hand, shrink-wrapped and distributed, 30% of which is to outside of Italy – though we’ve yet to find any way out west in Sligo.
The all important tasting
After the tour we were treated to lunch and a selection of breads and, of course, Parma ham. We tried the 24 month and it was simply delicious, with an amazing flavour. We also tried another of Ruliano’s cured hams, this time a shoulder which apparently it is less popular. We found it smoother and a stronger taste and, whilst we preferred the traditional leg, we still very much liked it.
We use quite a bit of Parma ham, be it wrapping around chicken breasts, as a pizza topping or with a salad or sandwich, and our visit has given us a new found love of the product.
We also feel it is really important for our children to understand how food is produced, that the welfare of animals used is of the highest standards and that only the best and natural ingredients are used. Meat is not just something that comes from a supermarket, but there is tradition, passion and skill in getting it there. On all these counts Ruliano scores top marks.
Ruliano offer tours of their factory and tasting of their hams – information can be found on their website. If you are in the area we highly recommend a visit.
Disclaimer – Thank you to the Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board for providing us with a free tour of Ruliano for the purposes of this review.
This review is, as always, 100% honest and our own opinion.