Prosciutto translates from Italian into English as “ham.” Ham is not an accurate or complete translation, however, as Prosciutto di Parma indicates a dry-cured pork that is unique to Parma, Italy. To call it ham does not do it justice. This is not the ham one sees in the supermarket that comes in a gelatinous covering. Prosciutto di Parma is the result of culinary artistry and strict guidelines.
By law, pork bearing the name Prosciutto di Parma may only be produced and cured in and around the countryside near Parma, Italy. And, only Italian pigs are allowed as the source. Each step in the production, from the breeding of the pigs to the final packaging is controlled by the Istituto Parma Qualità (I.P.Q.). Only the I.P.Q. has the authority to brand the finished ham with the seal of Parma's five-pointed crown, indicating that the meat has cleared the rigorous standards required in production. Prosciutto di Parma has been awarded the Protected Designation of Origin by the European Community designating it as a high-quality European food made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region.
Producing Prosciutto di Parma is not for the impatient and can take up to 3 years. The process is documented and traceable from the birth of the pig to the market.
The first step requires Italian pig breeders to place a mark on both rear legs of a young pig within 30 days of it’s birth. The mark indicates the pig’s place of birth, month of birth and a breeder’s code. This is to insure that only Italian pigs are utilized.
After slaughter, each leg is marked with a code identifying the slaughter house and a metal seal, attached to each ham during the salting stage, bears the Consorzio’s acronym (CPP) and the date at which processing began.
To begin the curing process, the legs are salted by a professional salt master or “maestro salatore.” The “first salt” uses two types of salt depending on the portion of the leg. After salting, the leg is refrigerated (1°C - 4°C) at a humidity level of 80% for a week. The “second salt” occurs after the week of cold hanging. After the second salting the leg hangs in cold storage for another 15 to 18 days depending on the size and weight of the leg. Salt is the only preservative allowed. No chemical additives. No nitrates. No sugar. No water. Only salt, air and time.
After the second salting and curing, the legs are cleaned to remove the excess salt. The legs are then hung on frames called “scalere” in a drying room for 7 months. The drying rooms must have large windows to allow the outside temperature and humidity to gradually dry the legs. Prosciutto producers will tell you that this open air drying period is crucial to the process. The combination of the Parma area air, temperature and humidity cannot be replicated elsewhere in the world.
In the 7th month, the legs are transferred to the cellars. The reduced air, light and humidity complete the curing. By law Prosciutto di Parma is cured for a minimum of 1 year from date of the first salting. Some are cured for as long as 3 years.
Every step of the curing process is documented. At the end of the curing process (400 day minimum) the ham and the documents of production are inspected.
Finally, inspectors test each ham with the horse bone needle to determine whether the appearance, color, and aroma of the final product meets the quality standards.