The Terroir of Food

  • Friday 21 January 2011

Parma ham and Parmesan – two of Italy’s most prized foods, and both from the same northern city. Fiona Beckett visits to assess what else the pair have in common

parma-ham

‘Where are the pigs?’ I asked our guide, Davide, as we drove through the rolling countryside of Emilia Romagna. Nowhere in the vicinity apparently – too hilly for them and too expensive for the farmers, I was told. It’s the biggest surprise about visiting the area round Parma, land of prosciutto and Parmesan. I’d harboured visions of the two processes being symbiotically intertwined, happy pigs feasting on the whey left over from the cheesemaking process.
And that’s the way it used to be. But these days, the pigs come from all over northern and central Italy
and eat mainly cereals.

Parma ham, it transpires, isn’t made on rustic homesteads but in concrete processing plants where thousands of hams are wheeled through the production line, salted and hung up to dry. It’s not
until you get into the ageing room where rows and rows of hams are lined up, glossy as leather, that you get a full sense of the craft – and beauty – behind the process. A cathedral of ham.

Prosciutto di Parma

It’s extraordinary how a leg of pork is transformed into meat so sensuously sweet and silky. The breed
doesn’t matter; the pigs are bred for size and a good covering of fat to impart texture and withstand the
long ageing process. The skill is in the salting, added in different amounts and different stages from one prosciuttificio to another. The character comes from the ageing, which varies from factory to factory. Part of the process takes place in rooms that are open to the air when the temperature and humidity are right, exposing the hams to the
particular bacteria in the area. ‘There can be as much difference between two Parma hams as between a Parma ham and a San Daniele [Parma’s arch rival, made in the Veneto],’ said Davide.

The curing process lasts 18 months, during which time the hams lose a third of their weight. They are constantly monitored, with the key stage relying onthe human nose. The inspector inserts a horse bone needle into five parts of the leg and sniffs it to ensure the meat is sweet (metal wouldn’t carry the aroma as well). Any ham that doesn’t meet the grade is discarded. The rest gets the distinctive crown stamp. (There is no grading system for Parma ham but some producers such as Sant’ Ilario and Pio Tosini are particularly highly rated by aficionados.)

Many shops and restaurants continue to age their hams once they take delivery of them – most Italians buy theirs cut to order or slice it at home themselves. At La Greppia, a traditional restaurant in Parma, proprietor Maurizio Rossi buys his hams from Pio Tosini at 14 to 16 months and ages themfor at least that amount again. The ham slices fall in silky, sensuous coils; to cut it that thinly you need well-cured hams. ‘You have to have a very big blade – the bigger it is, the less it warms up which means you can cut your slices very, very fine,’ he says.

Parmigiano-Reggiano

The approach to Parmesan, or Parmigiano-Reggiano as it should be called, is similarly artisanal. Latteria
San Pietro, (a dairy in another ugly building), uses techniques that have been passed down through the generations. Parmesan is made from two batches of unpasteurised milk – one from the evening before which is skimmed, one from that morning, plus whey from the previous day’s batch – a liquid that looks like urine but has the unique bacteria that
gives cheese from that dairy its character. It takes 600 litres of milk to make a 40kg cheese.

The milk is heated in cone-shaped copper vats. Although the process is partly mechanised, much is still done by eye and hand – the curds scooped up in a linen cloth by the cheesemaker and assistant and rolled to form a ball and hung (the levata, or elevation). Once drained, the cheeses are put into moulds embossed with the official stamps of the consortium and which tightly encircle the cheese.

They then spend 20 to 24 days in brine, which salts the cheese but also, counterintuitively, expels moisture from it. They are then stored on racks in an ageing room for a minimum of 12 months during which they’re turned and brushed to remove any mould. At the end of the process, the cheeses are tested by the cheesemaker with a small hammer called a martello. He can tell by the sound if makes if there are any holes in the cheese which could affect its quality. Ones that don’t come up to scratch are classified as mezzano and sold for grated cheese.

For the ultimate Parmesan experience I visited Osteria Francescana in Modena, a cutting-edge restaurant where chef Massimo Bottura serves a dish of Five Different Ages of Parmesan in Five Different Textures: a soufflé, a galette, an ‘air’, a foam and a rich creamy sauce. I couldn’t resist asking cheesemaker Luciano Pedretti what he thought of it. His reply was almost unprintable: ‘It’s dis-gus-ting! People want to change things so much. It’s like a balloon – you blow it up and then it bursts,’ he said darkly. I found the dish delicious but can sympathise with Pedretti’s sentiments.

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