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Last updated 2 April 2020
Exploring parma ham on an Italy food tour
By now you’ve probably noticed that I am truly making the most of my Italy food tours. Not only do I get to learn so much, but there’s so much to taste as well.
Following our stop at the Parmigiano Reggiano factory, our second visit of the day on the Three Kings Tour offers us a chance to learn how the famous Parma ham is made.
Making Parma ham is subject to the very strict PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) protocols in order to be able to be officially called Parma.
Here in Parma, around 150 producers are located up in the hills, producing around 9 million Parma hams each year. The absence of humidity and the cooler airs assists the drying process. Fresh air is also needed to dry the meat, and it is up in these hills that the salty winds come over from the Ligurian coast. (where the wonderful Cinque Terre is located).
The Parma factory tour
Today, we are visiting Salumificio Conti, a family owned Parma factory that operates five days a week. This factory produces around 250,000 hams each year, roughly one for every person in Parma.
Unusual fact: As regulated by the PDO, pigs used for the making of Parma ham must be Italian born and hand raised.
The rules also dictate that the pigs must be large, usually weighing 140-160kg, and also be very fatty. They must be at least nine months old at the time of slaughter. It is the fat that distinguishes Parma ham from other generic hams. Non-authentic hams use younger pigs, born and fed abroad, where the fat has not developed as much.
Parma ham is also easily identified by its shape. While most generic hams look like a standard leg of ham, the Parma ham is cut in a pear shape. This allows it to absorb the salt properly.
Rows and rows of pork legs sit on shelves awaiting the salting process.
The salting process
The only ingredient added to the pork is salt and some spices like rosemary and pepper.
As the meat passes through the rollers, they compress it, making it tender, and pushing in the salt.
More salt is added and then the legs are left to rest.
I found the “resting” rooms to be very interesting. As the drying process is heavily dependent on climatic conditions, Mother Nature can sometimes be a difficult partner. As such, the rooms represent different seasons of the year, where the temperatures are machine-controlled to ensure the appropriate environment for the various staging of drying.
One room is the “Winter” season. The legs enter this room very fresh, with salt still visible on the outside. At this stage, the legs are quite big and the meat is dark. This means the drying process is starting to work.
For one week, the legs will stay in this room at zero degrees Celsius and 80% humidity.
A week later, they are re-salted, and then placed back in this room.
The drying process
The legs will then spend another two weeks in the second room. As they go to a new room, the temperature increases and the humidity decreases.
The legs are now washed with warm water and left for another three weeks at this stage.
In the next room, they get to spend three months. Here the meat gets even darker and the legs start to lose weight.
The resting rooms have thousands of legs all hanging from motorised racks, allowing for them to be moved from room to room easily.
As the meat dries and shrinks, the layer of fat is quite prominent.
Unusual fact: All Parma houses in Italy can be recognised from the outside by their narrow windows. These windows are very important for the drying process and during sunny, windy and dry days, the windows are all opened up to the elements.
The room with the windows is known as the “Spring” season and will only be open when the conditions are right. Otherwise, they will be dried in the temperature controlled rooms mentioned above.
The greasing process
After six months in the “Summer” room, the legs have grease applied to them to keep the meat tender and to modify the drying process.
This “sugna” or lard is made from the back fat of the pigs, mixed with rice flour, salt and pepper. It protects the legs from bacteria and bugs and also adds flavour. Whilst the meat will keep on drying, it stops the outside getting hard.
The lard is only applied to the meat, not to the skin, by hand. It’s not a job I would love to do, but the manner in which these experts apply it is quite amazing to watch.
Testing for quality and authenticity
Similar to the process for testing the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, a member of the consortium will come and conduct tests once the hams are 12 months old.
A testing implement, made from horse bone is placed into the Parma ham. The testers will then smell the needle-like implement for any impurities or issues. I can’t help but be amazed at their ability to isolate specific issues just from this simple test. Personally, I could tell you whether it was “off” but that’s where my abilities would end.
If the ham passes the test, it will be firebranded with the official Parma ham brand, the Ducal Crown, that is used on all approved items.
Once again, like the cheese, you can simply and easily identify a real Parma ham. The crown that is part of the brand is connected to the Dukedom of Parma that existed from 1545-1861.
Like the Cheese Vault, the Parma Vault is full of their special hams that are worth a small fortune on the market. Note my beautiful clothing once again!
This is always one of the best parts of any food tour. The more we look at all of the beautiful food, the more we want to taste it. Italy food tours offer such an incredible opportunity to learn from the best as you taste, taking it all to another level.
We were served very generous quantities of the most tender Parma ham I think I’ve ever had. We wound it around grissini, looking every bit the experts, and washing it down with a glass of Malvasia Prosecco.
Once again, like the cheese, the older the Parma, the more tender and more delicious it is.
How to recognise Parma ham
Every part of the process for making Parma ham can be identified and traced back to its origins.
- At one month of age, the breeders of the pigs will tattoo both legs with their own brand. This identifies the breeder and the age of the pig.
- At the slaughterhouse, each leg is branded once more with the details of the slaughterhouse. The tattoo will start with the letters PP.
- A metal pin is inserted near the hoof end of the leg to indicate the commencement of production.
- When the final Parma ham passes testing, the Ducal Crown is branded onto the ham. This also shows the details of the producer.