I knew when I moved to Italy 2 1/2 years ago, one of the things I wanted to do was visit as many regions as I could. For me, one of the more important regions was Emilia-Romagna. It is the region that has the distinguished title of being famous for Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale and Proscuitto di Parma.
We tracked down all three of these delicacies but this story is about just one – the ever enticing Proscuitto di Parma. We visited a plant in a neighboring town of Langhirano. Langhirano is said to be the heart of the Proscuitto di Parma region. Like many of the products in Italy, Proscuitto di Parma has it’s own consortium that regulates the entire process from the precise raising of the pigs, to specific regulations on aging the meat, and everything in between. The plant we visited did not slaughter the pigs but received just the thighs – the only part of the pig used for Proscuitto di Parma.
When the meat first arrives at a plant, it is immediately salted by highly trained masters who have 10+ years of experience (just for salting a thigh!) and placed in a refrigeration holding area for one week. After a week, the salt is brushed off and the thighs are fed into a machine where they are massaged (subliminal message…book a massage). Once adequately massaged, the thighs are salted a second time by the same “salt masters.”
Let me take a moment to point out my amazement at how exceptionally trained every person is for their specific tasks. The tasks all seem simple to the untrained eye but to pass consortium regulations, every single one of these jobs have precisely trained individuals working their specific task for many, many years to be considered masters of their trade.
OK, back to the star of this story……the meat is then hung and put in another refrigeration area to continue the aging process. Once successfully through this aging, the meat is moved to an area where it gets a silver tag designated by the consortium for Proscuitto di Parma. This tag states the month and year the meat was made. In 2007, these tags cost about 18 euro cents a piece. As you can imagine, producers are incredibly dedicated to the art of Proscuitto di Parma production as this particular step can be quite costly.
After the tagging, the Proscuitto di Parma is moved to another location where, again, highly trained professionals apply the protective lard on the exposed meat area. Often, the lard has black pepper in it. One would assume the black pepper would be added to enhance flavor, but in actuality, it is thought that the black pepper keeps the flies away. At this stage, the proscuitto changes from refrigeration aging to climate and humidity controlled aging for the remainder of it’s aging process.
After the lard applied aging segment, a profoundly trained tester comes through to test the meat. Now, this guy essentially uses only his ability to smell to judge whether the meat is aging properly. You’re probably imagining a guy with a rather large nose, right? I don’t know about all of the professional “sniffers” out there, but the guy we saw definitely had a nose that looked like it had it’s own profession. The “sniffer” uses a thin pick made out of horse bone to sniff the meat. Here’s another example of scrupulous attention to detail. Horse bone is specifically chosen because it is very porous and it has the unique ability to take in the smell and then dissipate it very quickly. So, this tester guy goes through and pokes the proscuitto thigh in about 5 places. Each time he pokes the meat, he smells the pick. Then he uses his finger to smear the lard back over the slightly exposed area. If the tester believes the meat is acceptable, it will get branded with a 5 pronged crown that states the month and year of production. The brand is placed so that anyway a butcher slices it, the branding will always show and the consumer will always know they are getting the “real deal.” This branding and the aforementioned silver tag symbolizes that the meat is, in fact, authentic Proscuitto di Parma.
Once it has passed the “sniffer” test, the meat is moved into it’s last climate and humidity controlled room where it finishes out it’s days aging to perfection. When all is said and done, Proscuitto di Parma is aged about 70 days and reduced by about 30% of it’s original size when finished.
I can’t say the process was a glamorous one to see. I mean, after all, it is a meat plant. I can say, the almost finicky attention to detail and the training the experts are required to go through guarantee that if you’re eating Proscuitto di Parma, you’re eating authentic Italy at it’s best!