The transformation of Parma ham is a study of how modern regulations and marketing can spoil an ancient artisanal delicacyby Alex Renton / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Alberto Rossetti, chef of Parma’s Al Tramezzo restaurant, is a devoted fan of the ham for which his hometown is famed. Tattooed on his thigh is the ducal crown emblem branded on every leg of prosciutto crudo di Parma. In September, during Parma’s annual festival of ham, I ate a glorious and quite bonkers feast at his Michelin-starred restaurant. Parma ham featured prominently, along with the region’s other great gift to the stomach, parmesan cheese.
The six glutamate-laden courses included a luxurious squid, prawn and prosciutto crudo risotto. This was good, surprisingly, since you might believe that the last thing you should do to a painstakingly cured and aged piece of meat is cook it. Rossetti’s dessert offering, “Il Club Sandwich di Parma,” was a confection of macaroon with apricot and Parma violets, beached in a sauce of white chocolate with truffle bits. Stuck through the middle of this was a slice of caramelised Parma ham. It was revolting.
With the aperitif—a local fizzy white called Camera picta—we ate slices of 40-month-old Parma ham from the Sant’Ilario factory nearby. This came with little chunks of mostarda di zucca: pumpkin preserved in honey and mustard. The ham was breathtaking: oaky, maroon in colour and unlike any I’ve had before.
Outside Italy we usually get a sadly bland Parma ham, sweet and bathroom pink, which seems as standardised as supermarket chipolatas. I prefer Spanish air-dried ham, from black-foot pigs fed on acorns in the mountains above Salamanca. Why the two hams differ so much is obvious to a ham-maker: ageing and the quality of the pig. It is also an intriguing study of what regulation and marketing can do to an ancient artisanal delicacy.
Forty years ago the ham-raising systems of highland Spain and Italy’s piedmont were almost identical. Cato described ham curing in his De Agricultura in 2BC. A pig was killed in early winter, its hind leg given a minimal salting and put to ferment in a damp, cool cellar. In late winter it was placed in a loft, the windows opened and closed by a man who sniffed the mountain breeze. By summer the ham was “asleep,” bacterial activity all over. It was greased with seasoned lard and allowed to hang and mature.
But by the 1960s, the name “Parma” was being used by ham makers as far away as Germany and Canada. The producers of the Emilia-Romagna region…