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
Published in November 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 decided to stamp out copycats. They formed the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma and, backed by legislation in 1970, set about establishing a worldwide brand. This involved hard-nosed policing: stopping imports of cheap pork from eastern Europe, and pursuing abusers of the name. The 5,500 licensed pig breeders’ and 160 curers’ practices were rigorously standardised—homogeneity of the product being key.
Production of Parma ham has been industrialised. The pigs are stuffed with food including the whey from cheese-making and killed at nine months, when they reach the enormous weight of 140kg. The ham matures for 12 to 18 months. The Spanish also make cheap air-dried ham, but the posh stuff, under controlled names like iberico, comes from free-range, long-lived pigs, fed on grain and what they can forage. Their ham is aged much longer—for two to three years. While Parma ham sells in Italy for €25-30 a kilo sliced, iberico may fetch three times as much.
The Parma ham factory I visited on my trip was a bit depressing. Thousands of yellowing, lute-shaped hams hung on conveyors, temperature and humidity electronically controlled. Windows are now operated by computers fed with metereological data. Seasons are of no importance. The only traditional intervention I could see was the insertion of a needle made of horse-bone into the maturing ham. This is then smelt by a human nose, still the best tool for assessing bacteria levels.
The consortium has been successful. Prosciutto crudo di Parma is a global delicacy without the problems of perception and trust affecting other such things—caviar, say, or champagne. The city of Parma is rich; its ham trade is now worth €1.7bn.
Meanwhile, jamon iberico languishes and the controlled origin labels are a mess. Hundreds of fascinatingly different hams are produced in Spain, to the delight of the connoisseur and confusion of the public. The industry is nothing like as valuable as Parma’s, not least because, until 2005, Spanish cured ham was not permitted access to the US, long one of Parma ham’s biggest markets.
Coming home laden with the stuff, I decided to throw my own prosciutto dinner party. Inspired by Heston Blumenthal, we started with a Parma ham ice cream. It looked gorgeous, a pearly-pink cumulus, but was literally nauseating. I also made what I thought was a witty take on the classic British habit of draping the ham over fruit like an abandoned anorak on a bench. My melon, mango and Parma ham sorbet got a thumbs-up. The recipe is below.
ALEX RENTON’S MELON AND PARMA HAM SORBET
A ripe melon weighing at least 1kg
A 300ml tin of mango chunks in syrup.
Finely grated zest of one lemon
40g prosciutto crudo, fat removed
I use an ice cream making machine. To make the same recipe by hand will demand more sugar syrup, a freezer and a lot of stirring.
Remove the melon from the rind, chop it, liquidise and pour into a measuring jug. The amount of liquid you need depends on your ice cream maker – mine takes 700ml. Test this for sweetness. A certain amount of sugar is needed to make the sorbet work—a standard fruit sorbet using will use 350g-450g of sugar with 700ml of liquid, but if your melon is quite ripe you should need very little. The liquid need not be very sweet: I used an average supermarket yellow melon (I’d rather have used honeydew, which has more sugar and flavour) and added half the tin of mangoes and their syrup – that was sugar enough. Puree all these together. Some might then strain the results through a muslin: I didn’t bother.
Chop the ham by hand, as fine as you possibly can. Stir it and the grated lemon zest into the liquid and pour it into the icecream maker’s container. Chill this before starting the machine and run according to its instructions for water ice or sorbet.