Prosciutto di Parma – Langhirano, Italy
The Emilia Romagna region is known for three things – Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and luxury cars (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati). Since we are not into luxury cars and would rather be eating, I looked into ways we could explore the process of making Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Since we did not have a car, it provided a bit of a challenge to find a company that would accommodate our needs. Luckily, I found Parmalook Food Tour Experience who was not only able to provide transportation but also to incorporate both Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma experiences into one tour.
After the morning learning about the intense process of Parmigiano Reggiano, it was time to switch from cheese to meat!
Now, thirty minutes north took us our of Parma proper and into Langhirano which is the only region permitted to make Prosciutto di Parma. Why the name change? Well, Parma already had name recognition at the time so instead of Prosciutto di Langhirano, it became Prosciutto di Parma. So more of a marketing tool than anything else.
Elevation quickly changed from flat and foggy to rolling hills above the fog and snow covered mountains in the distance. Matteo began pointing out the long buildings full of large windows on both floors – these are where Prosciutto di Parma is made. There are three ingredients for making Prosciutto di Parma – meat, salt, and air. Air from Langhirano contains just the right combination of natural bacteria to create the Prosciutto di Parma we know and love.
Upon a hill, we made it to La Perla Salumificio and to quite a view. While we waited for the guide to start, Kevin made friends with the neighborhood black lab, Yago.
Matteo got the group garbed up to enter the factory – felt like I was back at work putting all this garb on! We learned that each year 5 million pigs from the north of Italy to the Emilia Romagna region produce 10 million Prosciutto di Parma. Each leg is 15 kilograms and at the end of the aging process results at 10 kilograms. Also, the butchering does not occur in any of the Prosciutto di Parma factories – it is considered bad luck!
The first step is tenderization of the meat followed but an immersion in sea salt. The meat is given time to rest – both on its side laying down and hanging by the leg. Both these occur in cold temperature environments.
Once this step is complete, the meat is transferred to one of three aging room, each room change the temperature increases. The first room is still considerably cold but this is where the magic happens.
Over time, the exposed meat – a small section of the overall surface area of the leg – begins to develop bacteria and mold build up… yummy! Every so often, the bacteria is washed off and new ones form. This fermentation process is what develops the characteristic flavors of Prosciutto di Parma. And boy did this room smell funky!
After the bacteria and mold phase, a paste is added to the exposed meet for protection. It is made of lard from around the pig’s kidneys, rice flour, pepper and salt water. Here in a warmer room, the meat continues on it’s aging journey. Reaching this step from the beginning takes 14 months. This is the minimum amount of aging time that is required per the DOP requirements but it often done for longer.
Similar to the Parmigiano Reggiano classification process, the Prosciutto di Parma must also go through a thorough inspection of each leg. A horse bone is used to insert into the meat, typically under the skin, to smell the meat.
The horse bone is ideal because it is very porous and does not hold onto the smell, making the testing very efficient with such a bone. By the time you smell for one leg, it leaves the bone for the next leg inspection. There is no classification here but it is yay or nay – “nay” means it is not safe to consume so it gets discarded and “yay” means good to go. Certain legs are more valuable than others based on the size of the bone, the percent of meat exposed, the distance of the skin from the bone, and other such characteristics of the leg itself.
Of course we were very excited to taste the final product. A large plate of 24 month aged Prosciutto di Parma appeared at the table. The first thing I noticed was the funky smell from the rooms. I had noticed this from Prosciutto di Parma in the past but it really was evident. The taste was incredible – it melted in your mouth and filled it with salty and fattiness – oh so good.
What an incredible way to start the day! We learned so much about both processes and it was event better to not just hear about it but actually experience it. It is amazing that both actually work in giving us a staple product of Emilia Romagna – the first person to do this with cheese and ham – especially after all that mold – was very brave indeed to give these a taste. Both still maintain the recipes from their origins and have been refined to the process we have today. Thank you for Matteo and Parmalook for such a great day!