The name has been repeated so often that it nearly skews towards the ubiquitous.  And yet, there’s something you can’t deny about the humble marriage of pork and salt.   Born in Parma, nestled in Italy’s culinary heartland of Emilia-Romagna, records of dry-cured hams date back to the Roman Empire.  In the mid-1800s when Parma’s ham spread in popularity throughout Italy, Parma’s villages were laid in a way that would increase air-circulation to aid in the ham-curing process.  Prosciutto di Parma is the outcome of the region’s ideal climate, and access to the rare commodity of salt from the saline rich wells of Salsomaggiore.   For what its worth, Salsomaggiore’s salt merchants were happy to trade salt for Parmigianino Reggiono and Prosciutto.

In the days before refrigeration, Prosciuttificios mastered of the art of aligning the curing process with the seasons.  Pigs fattened off of the summer’s fallen hazelnuts and acorns were slaughtered in late-autumn as the weather turned colder.  The fresh legs of pork were then packed in salt (too much and the ham would be dry and too salty – too little and the ham would spoil), and aged until spring in the cool winter air.  By springtime, the salt had worked its way to the center of the ham and killed off any harmful bacteria.  As the weather warmed up in the spring, so did the hams, beginning the fermentation process responsible for Prosciutto di Parma’s depth of flavor.

Today Prosciutto di Parma is a major industry, with one in every three legs of Italian pork turned into one of Parma’s legendary hams.  In 1963 the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma was founded to protect its’ producers from imitators with less scrupulous standards.  Prosciutto di Parma was one of the first foods to be granted DOP status by the European Union.  Even still, there is a huge variation in quality from one producer’s Prosciutto di Parma to the next.  To bear the DOP seal, the hams must be aged a minimum of ten months.  The longer the ham is aged, the more velvety in texture the meat becomes, and the more intense the flavor.  Our extra-aged proscuitto from Prosciuttificcio Delitia is aged from 500 to 600 days and is a lovely example of a well-made Parma ham, set apart in its age and craftsmanship from the commodity prosciuttos we have been accustomed to in the United States.

Pairings: Dry white wines, spumante and reds of medium body: Vermentino toscano or ligure, Albana di Romagna, Franciacorta Brut, Champagne, Sangiovese di Romagna, Lambrusco Grasparossa

Some Nerdy Prosciutto Facts (From Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking”)

The Alchemy of Dry-Cured Flavor Some of the muscles’ biochemical machinery survives intact, in particular the enzymes that break flavorless proteins down into savory peptides and amino acids, which over the course of months may convert a third or more of the meat protein to flavor molecules.  The concentration of mouth-filling meaty glutamic acid rises ten- to twenty-fold, and as in cheese, so much of the amino acid tyrosine is free that it may form small white crystals.  In addition, the unsaturated fats in pig muscle break apart and react to form hundreds of volatile compounds, some of them characteristic of the aroma of melon, apple, citrus, flowers, freshly cut grass, and butter.  Other compounds react with the products of protein breakdown to give nutty caramel flavors normally found only in cooked meats.”

 

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