How it’s made: the backstory behind traditional Italian Parma Ham
It's more than just Italian tradition – it’s a real labour of love
For the expert Parma Ham makers in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, the process behind the production of the delicacy is more than just local tradition – it’s a real labour of love.
To make Parma Ham that’s worthy of official certification, the area’s skilled artisans follow strict production techniques that have changed very little over thousands of years. But although the process may be complicated, the ingredients are very simple; in fact, the only things that go into making this world-famous cured meat are Italian pork and salt.
Add another two elements – air and time – to the equation, and you’ve cracked the secret to developing this world-famous product’s distinctive flavour. Of course, there are a fair few steps that need to be taken before it’s silky, marbled, and ready to eat...
Step 1: salting the pork legs
Each week, the region’s official Parma Ham producers receive a batch of fresh pork legs from authorised abattoirs (only Italian pork will do). The legs are then salted by the ‘maestro salatore’ (that’s ‘salt master’ to you and me) and refrigerated for a week, before being coated in a second thin layer of salt. This layer of salt remains on the pork leg for 15-18 days, ensuring that the ham absorbs enough salt to preserve it without ruining the flavour.
Aside from being key to determining Parma Ham’s eventual taste, salt is the only preservative that’s used throughout the entire production process – meaning that Parma Ham is healthier than other types of ham, which tend to contain nasties like nitrates or nitrites.
Step 2: curing the meat
Following the salting, the hams are hung up in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms for 60-90 days. They are then washed with warm water, brushed to remove any excess salt or impurities, then hung in drying rooms for a few days.
Next up, the dried hams are hung on frames in well-ventilated rooms with large windows for three months – an initial curing period that’s crucial to the development of the distinctive Parma Ham flavour. A paste of salt and lard is then applied to the surface of the hams to prevent the outer layers from drying out too quickly.
In the seventh month, the pork legs are hung up in cellar-like rooms with less air and light. The curing process causes them to lose about 5% of their weight before they’re ready to eat.
Step 3: quality checking the hams
By law, the Parma Ham ageing process lasts for at least a year (we told you the standards were strict) – and when the time is right, each leg is checked for quality by a member of an independent inspection body.
To ensure the hams are up to scratch, a horse bone is inserted into five different points; the inspector then smells the meat to ensure that it’s mature enough to make the grade. It is only then that the hams are ready to receive their official stamp of certification: fire-branding with the famous Ducal Crown.
Piqued your interest for Parma Ham? Check out a few lesser-known Parma Ham facts below, or visit the Parma Ham Consortium website.