After watching the elegant ballet that was Parmigiano-Reggiano, we headed to the nearby Prosciuttificio San Giacomo to see how prosciutto is made. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto is a case of a truly artisanal product that is made on a very large scale. And likewise, the process is governed by a consortium that maintains strict rules on how the hams are processed.
Cured hams are made in many places, but those of Parma are considered to be the finest. This is the result of equal parts adherence to traditional processes, as well as natural environmental influences. Down in Cesenatico, for example, where we would be making salumi the next day, it is not possible to make prosciutto, as it is too humid during the warm months for the hams to cure properly; they would spoil.
The process is really quite a simple one. Hams from the neighboring farms are brought in, salted, refrigerated, and then hung to cure. The art comes in handling the hams, and ensuring they are in the proper environment to cure optimally.
Entering the prosciuttificio, the air was redolent with a porky smell. As the proprietor greeted us, a worker swung through with a bunch of hams on a rack, headed to be salted.
Traditionally, hams would be salted by hand; nowadays, to accommodate production methods, they are run on a conveyor belt through a machine that salts them. Beyond that, this is a strictly manual process.
After the salting, the hams are hung in a refrigerated chamber, no warmer than 4ºC (39ºF) and 80% humidity, for a week for the initial curing. From there, the hams are taken upstairs to another chamber -- really an entire floor of the factory -- where the meaty portions of the hams are spackled with a combination of lard and flour to protect them from overdrying.
The goal here is to use the minimum amount of salt to achieve the optimum product. Although these hams are quite substantial, usually about 15 kg upon arrival, too much salt would result in hams that are dry and tough, and too salty to eat. I learned this firsthand by trying to cure two boar legs last year. Finding the balance of how much salt to use requires finesse.
From there, the hams are left to hang in climate-controlled environments until the curing process is complete -- 18 months in all. S. Giacomo is a particularly large facility; they process 10,000 hams a month, which means at any given time there are 180,000 hams somewhere in the curing process in the facility. Trust me, you've never seen this much pig flesh in one place.
And yet, because nearly all of the process is inactive time, it's not terribly labor-intensive. We saw only a handful of workers the entire time, and no machinery other than the salter.
Working in such massive quantities might seem like it would result in a product that is flat and soulless, but I can assure you that quite the opposite was true. At the end of our tour, they broke out a freshly-cut hunk of prosciutto.
I've eaten a lot of prosciutto over the years, but this was unparalleled. The flesh was silky and soft; the fat melted on the tongue. The balance of salt was perfect, enhancing the natural flavor of the meat. It was firm but definitely not dry.
Sadly, you cannot bring any meat product into the US, so all we could bring home was the memory of this succulent meat. But the smiles on our faces are a testament to the experience.