Discover the Origin want you to learn more about the world's most famous food products. Kavita Favelle went to Parma for a crash course on the city's iconic ham
The inspector from the Istituto Parma Qualità moves quickly amongst a selection of legs of ham. He pierces each ham in at least five spots using a special horse bone needle and sniffs the needle after each puncture. The needle is quite specialist; horse bone is porous to just the right degree that it takes in the smell from the piercing, holds it long enough for the inspector to smell it, then dissipates before the next piercing.
A slight, barely perceptible nod from the inspector indicates that a ham has passed. A worker following him lathers the ham with fat to protect it. Then, and only then, the ham is fire-branded with the distinctive Parma ham mark. Parma ham has PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, and only products made in the area, to very strict and specific rules, can be labelled as such.
I am in Parma as part of Discover the Origin, a campaign established to promote some of the world's most iconic foods, including Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Burgundy wines and Port and Douro Valley wines through a series of events and activities.
Our small group is taken to a factory in the heart of the farmland surrounding Parma. Although Parma ham has been produced for centuries employing methods that have been honed over time and handed down from generation to generation, this factory is carefully combining modern technology with traditional methods.
The manager tells us that the advantages of modernisation include being able to more carefully control conditions to produce a more consistently excellent product. They are now less dependent on the weather – modern refrigeration rooms can produce the exact temperature and humidity conditions that were once only possible during winter.
The manager tells us that the pork must be born, raised and slaughtered in authorised farms and slaughterhouses in specified regions.
The maestro salatore (master of salt) takes the fresh pork, puts it through a machine that applies a salt wash and massages the meat, and then carefully applies dry salt by hand.
The hams are then stored (in temperature and humidity controlled rooms) for about a week. Residual salt is removed, another layer applied and they are stored again for another couple of weeks. The maestro salatore checks and adjusts them daily to ensure that just enough salt is absorbed to cure the meat without making it excessively salty – Parma ham is known for it's sweet flavour.
The hams are then hung for 70 days, during which the meat darkens (It returns to a pale pink colour towards the end of the curing process). Then they are washed with warm water (in enormous showers that look like car washes), brushed to remove excess salt and then hung in drying rooms.
The next stage is the initial curing, in large ventilated rooms that recreate the conditions in the open-windowed upper floors of local houses, where hams were traditionally hung to cure over winter. This phase lasts about three months, and by the end of it, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened. The exposed surface is softened and protected with a paste of minced fat, salt and pepper. The hams are hung for 12 to 30 months, for their final curing.
The inspector from the Istituto Parma Qualità gives his seal of approval to all the hams, packs away his horse bone needle and leaves. The people from Discover the Origin whisk us away to a nearby restaurant to sample the ham that has met these exacting standards.
It is delicious. The best Parma ham I have ever tasted. And a testament to the hard work put in by the factory and the Parma Ham Consortium who have been working since 1963 to safeguard and protect the quality and image of Parma ham.
Discover The Origin are running a series of events and activities to promote food and drink that have received the EU Protected Designation of Origin stamp of approval. For more information about upcoming events and competitions, visit their website.