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Production

For centuries, Prosciutto di Parma® or Parma Ham®—the names are interchangeable—has been prized for its enticing aroma and incomparable flavor. By law this famous ham can be made and cured only in the gently rolling countryside near Parma, Italy.

Four ingredients are essential to the production of Prosciutto di Parma®: Italian pigs, salt, air and time. Prosciutto di Parma® is an all-natural ham–additives such as sugar, spices, smoke, water and nitrites are prohibited.

Making a Parma Ham® is a long and painstaking process. The curing is controlled carefully so that the ham absorbs only enough salt to preserve it. By the end, a trimmed ham will have lost more than a quarter of its weight through moisture loss, helping to concentrate the flavor. The meat becomes tender and the distinctive aroma and flavor of Prosciutto di Parma® emerge.

Key Production Steps

Specially Raised Pigs

The hams are made from the rear haunches of pigs bred in north-central Italy specifically for Prosciutto di Parma® production. Their feed, too, is specially formulated—a blend of cereal grains and whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production. The pigs are nine months old and must weigh a minimum of 340 pounds at the time of slaughter.

Trimming and Salting

At the prosciuttificio, or processing plant, some skin and fat are removed to give the ham its typical “chicken drumstick” shape.

A highly trained maestro salatore, or salt master, rubs sea salt into the meat, which is then refrigerated at 80% humidity for about a week. Residual salt is removed and the ham gets a second thin coating of salt, which is left on another 15 to 18 days, depending on weight.

By making daily adjustments in temperature and humidity, the maestro ensures that the legs absorb just enough salt to cure them—thereby preserving Prosciutto di Parma’s reputation as a “sweet ham.”

Resting and Initial Curing

The hams hang for 60 to 70 days in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms. The meat darkens but will return to its original rosy color in the final days of curing.

Next, the hams are washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt, then hung in drying rooms.

Now the hams are hung on frames in airy “pre-curing” rooms with large windows that are opened when the outside temperature and humidity are favorable. Connoisseurs believe that this period, when the Parma Hams are bathed in aromatic breezes, is critical to the development of the ham’s distinctive flavor. By the end of this phase, which lasts about three months, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened.

Final Curing

The hams are moved to dark, cellar-like rooms, where the exposed surfaces are softened with a paste of minced lard, salt and pepper. The hams hang on racks for an additional three to five months—by the end, they will have lost more than a quarter of their original weight.

Altogether, the hams are cured at least four hundred days, and some are cured as long as 30 months.

Quality Testing

At the end of the curing phase, an inspector pierces each ham at five critical points with a porous horsebone needle, sniffing it after each puncture and inhaling the aroma. This helps determine whether the ham is of sufficiently high quality to be sold as Prosciutto di Parma®. Only perfection will do: About 4% of the hams are rejected.

  

Fire Branding

Hams that pass all of the quality control tests are fire branded with the official mark of the Consorzio,

the five-point ducal crown that identifies them as genuine Prosciutto di Parma®.

    

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