There are few foods that need no help to bring out their full flavor. No spreading of mayonnaise or smearing of mustard on top. No herbs or spices as cozy companions. Or dressings of hollandaise or simmering marinara to raise its umami profile. Its rich flavor is at home all by itself. No need for adornment.
Prosciutto di Parma is one of these rare and prized perfections. And though you’ll find it in recipes in every Italian cookbook and on the menus of starred Italian restaurants—from appetizers to desserts—to those who have the good fortune to savor it regularly, they’ll tell you, unapologetically, that Prosciutto di Parma is best served simply on a slice of good, crusty bread.
Defining Proscuitto di Parma
But what exactly is Prosciutto di Parma? And what gives it its unmatchable flavor? For the answers I turned to some of the producers and experts of Prosciutto di Parma.
But first, we need to go back to its noble history and to where the only true Prosciutto di Parma is still produced in the world.
The word ‘prosciutto’ comes from two Latin words: pro, meaning before, and exsuctus, or to suck out [meaning the moisture]. There are two types: prosciutto cotto or cooked ham and prosciutto crudo, or raw ham. Prosciutto di Parma is the latter. But no health worries here. Prosciutto di Parma is dry-cured (its slow-aging process partly accounts for its incomparable flavor). The practice of curing ham by air-drying stretches back thousands of years to the pre-ancient Roman days in Italy. The use of salt to preserve pork meat resulted in not only producing a product that was practical but also one with a remarkable flavor. But it was Cato, the Roman statesman who, in 100 B.C., wrote about the impressive flavor of the air-cured ham around Parma. And it is in Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna province specifically, that still produces Italy’s most famous prosciutto, often called ‘the King of Hams.’
Cato knew what he liked. He just didn’t know what made the prosciutto in the Parma region stand out from the others. Why did it have such a sweet, delicate and aromatic taste? Or what accounted for its luxurious and buttery texture? Luckily, the producers knew. And from generation to generation, the producers passed the process down, making the time-honored tradition of creating Prosciutto di Parma almost a sacred law.
There are only four ingredients in producing Prosciutto di Parma: pork, salt, air and time. But it is in the steps of each that sets Prosciutto di Parma apart from the rest. These are meticulously governed and guarded. So much so that, in 1963, the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma was founded. Under its watchful eye, each approved Parma ham is seared with the seal of the Parma five-pointed crown, the Ducal. (Next to the Crown, you’ll also find a number. Through it, you can trace the producer and even the farmer who raised the pig.) And, yes, not all hind legs are accepted. Only the best in terms of weight, diet and age, among others, meet the high standards set.
Thirty-three years later, in 1996, the European Union recognized prosciutto from the Parma region as being an exceptional regional product and designated it as a PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin, and sometimes known as DOP, Denominazione d’Origine Protetta). Like the DOC seal on Italy’s wines, the PDO on prosciutti (plural of prosciutto) signifies quality of the highest order.
To earn the Ducal seal (and therefore the designated PDO), every step, beginning with the breed and raising of the pigs, must be of the Parma region. Only three breeds can be used: the Large White, the Landroce and the Duroc. These are larger than most and, therefore, produce larger hind legs, the chosen cut by the Parma prosciutto producers. Here, size definitely matters. A crucial factor in producing luscious and savory prosciutto is in its air-drying or aging/curing step. The larger the ham, the longer it can cure, or ‘suck out,’ the moisture, forcing all the flavors inside. To prevent the ham from absorbing too much salt, the curing is carefully controlled—only allowing enough for preservation. On average, the Parma ham will lose 25% to 30% of its weight during this step. This dry-aging process can continue from 400 days to 24 months or more.
In all, there are nine steps. From the initial cooling of the pig’s thigh for an easier first trimming to its final survey and branding, each hinges on the success of those preceding them. It is in the last stage, however, that each ham’s success is judged. It’s called the “olfactory examination.” Using a ‘fibula,’ a thin needle made from a horse’s shin, the ‘spillatore’ (sometimes called a ‘puntatore’) penetrates the ham thigh at specific points. Because of its porosity, the fibula captures the ham’s aromas (and, later, just as quickly loses them). Much like a sommelier, the spillatore, a highly-regarded and trained professional, can then evaluate the many leveled characteristics of the prosciutto by bringing the fibula to his nose and inhaling. Rendering a positive judgement, he proclaims the prosciutto fit for branding with the five-pointed Parma crown seal.
But it is not just the time-honored process that sets Parma prosciutto above the rest. It’s also its climate — a magical mingling of mountain air from the Apennines with the briny breezes from the Adriatic. It’s the perfect micro-climate for producing delicate, sweet-savory, aromatic, nutty and melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto. (The nuttiness comes from the milky whey left over from another of Parma’s PDO specialties, Parmiagiano Reggiano cheese, which is included in the pigs’s diet.)
Modern science confirms the climate claim. Too hot or humid and the meat would spoil. And the prosciutto won’t dry or cure properly if it’s too cold or too dry. Through modern technology, especially climate control, Parma’s perfect prosciutto weather is being reproduced in other countries, including the U.S., in making prosciutto. Still, it is only prosciutto from the Parma region that can proudly bear the Ducal five-point crown seal and PDO symbol. Bear in mind also that no preservatives, additives, hormones, gluten, coloring agents or nitrates are used in the production of Prosciutto di Parma. So, let the buyer beware; if buying prosciutto pre-packaged, and it does not bear the Parma crown seal on the top left, read the list of ingredients carefully. Also check how many months the prosciutto has been aged. The longer the aging process, the more tender and flavorful.
Other Prosciutto Types
In addition to Prosciutto di Parma, there is Spain’s Jamón (Serrano or Iberico) and Italy’s Prosciutto Toscano, a PDO prosciutto produced in Tuscany. Two recent emerging PDO (or DPO) prosciutti are Prosciutto di Modena and Prosciutto di Carpegno. As expected, all three Italian prosciutti are flavored with their own terroir.
Next in popularity and recognition to that of Parma’s is another PDO prosciutto: San Daniele. It’s produced in the Fruili Venezia Giulia region. It, too, has its own consortium governing its prosciutto production and brand of approval. This is in the shape of a leg of ham. San Daniele’s rosy color is darker and its flavor a little lighter. Donato Loscalzo, CEO and president of Principe Foods USA, with locations in Brooklyn, NY and Long Beach, CA, which produces both types of prosciutto as well as a few others, described the difference in gender terms. Assigning the feminine to the San Daniele and the masculine to the Parma, he said, the San Daniele is more delicate and less salty and should be sliced very thin, while the Prosciutto di Parma could handle a heavier hand when slicing.
Not all would agree. Still, everyone acknowledges that Prosciutto di Parma should be sliced thin. Just how thin seems to be debatable. There’s no hard and fast rule as to how thin Prosciutto di Parma should be sliced or even how best to enjoy it.
Sara Padoan, head of ITA (Italian Trade Agency) Food & Wine Division in New York, enjoys it best “with some slices of a sweet, juicy melon or [will] put a couple slices of Prosciutto di Parma on top of a pizza margherita.” For wine, Padoan suggests a red, or a Prosecco if having at aperitivo time.
For Anna Gallo, director of sales and marketing for Wilkes-Barre, PA-based importer Savello USA, Inc., which carries the family-owned Leoncini Prosciutto di Parma, nothing beats “Prosciutto di Parma sliced by hand with a nice piece of bread or put on a pizza with arugula.”
Simone Bocchini, president of Fratelli Bocchini, which has U.S. offices in Mt. Olive, NJ, and has been making artisan prosciutto since 1812 in Italy, says, “Being Italian, for me, prosciutto is a star on its own. I like it simple on a nice, artisan piece of bread.” Bocchini also confesses to cooking with it creatively in recipes involving “different kinds of cheeses or dry fruit.” Depending on how he serves it, Bocchini will pair an appetizer with “a nice Prosecco or Pinot Grigio.” When pairing with a main course, he says, go with a Barolo of Barbaresco.
It’s white wine all the way for Principe’s Loscalzo, especially a bottle of Friuli Venzia Giulia.
The ways to enjoy Prosciutto di Parma are as simple or as creative as you like. Same with the wines to pair them with. However, one thing is clear: Prosciutto di Parma can never be produced in a factory. There would be no hands to methodically massage the air-drying pork or hand-rub it with sea salt. Producing Prosciutto di Parma is not only a time-honored artisan tradition, as the above professionals attest, but a source of regional pride.
So, the next time you buy Prosciutto di Parma, do yourself a favor. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine, peel off several thin, rosy slices of prosciutto from the wrapper — but before you place them on a slice of good, crusty bread — inhale its sweet aroma and revel in its buttery texture. Then tuck in and let its melt-in-your mouth perfection seduce you. It’s not a coincidence that one of the famous streets in Rome is called via Panisperna — a combination of panis (bread) and perna (ham/prosciutto). DB