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Italy’s famous Parma and one of the best Italy food tours you can do

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Parma Itally Food tours

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).

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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.

The pear shaped Parma ham Italy food tours
The pear-shaped Parma ham

Rows and rows of pork legs sit on shelves awaiting the salting process.

Legs of pork awaiting the salting process - Italy Food tours
Legs of pork awaiting the salting process

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The salting process

The only ingredient added to the pork is salt and some spices like rosemary and pepper.

Adding salt to the parma - Italy Food Tours
Salt is added to the Parma

As the meat passes through the rollers, they compress it, making it tender, and pushing in the salt.

salting machine for parma - Italy Food Tours
The salting machine

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.

Legs of pork salted and resting - Italy Food Tours
The first part of the salting process is now complete

A week later, they are re-salted, and then placed back in this room.

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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.

Italy food tours Parma Ham
The meat is starting to darken and dry out from the salt

The resting rooms have thousands of legs all hanging from motorised racks, allowing for them to be moved from room to room easily.

The legs hanging in the drying rooms - Italy Food Tours
The legs hanging in the drying rooms

As the meat dries and shrinks, the layer of fat is quite prominent.

Italy Food Tours
The fat around the outside of the leg

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.

Parma ham factory Italy food tours
Note the narrow windows of the factory

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.

Parma hams on Italy FoodTour
Rubbing lard onto the legs. Note the large pile of lard nearby.
Greasing parma on Italy Food Tours
A leg that has been greased
Vault of Parms Hams - Italy food Tours
The vault full of greased Parma hams

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.

Parma factory Italy Food Tours
Our tour guide with the horse bone tester

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.

Parma factory Italy Food Tours
The official Parma branding

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!

Parma vault Italy Food Tours
In the Parma vault

Tasting

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.

Parma tasting Italy Food Tours
Time to eat and it’s amazing
The Italy Food tour group
The Italy Food tour group

How to recognise Parma ham

Every part of the process for making Parma ham can be identified and traced back to its origins.

  1. 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.
  2. At the slaughterhouse, each leg is branded once more with the details of the slaughterhouse.  The tattoo will start with the letters PP.
  3. A metal pin is inserted near the hoof end of the leg to indicate the commencement of production.
  4. When the final Parma ham passes testing, the Ducal Crown is branded onto the ham.  This also shows the details of the producer.
Parma factory tour Italy Food Tours
Note the tattoos and the metal pin on the leg
Parma hams are also immediately obvious when you see a full leg.  This is due to the rounder, pear-like shape and the amount of fat surrounding the meat.  It is also softer, and less salty as a result of this fat.
Parma can be aged up to 36 months and gets better and better the older it is.
 
TIP: Parma is also called Prosciutto, meaning aged, but ordinary Proscuitto cannot be called Parma.
 

26 thoughts on “Italy’s famous Parma and one of the best Italy food tours you can do”

  1. That is a very interesting process. With everything we eat that must be refrigerated, it’s so amazing to see these years old processes of curing food and no one gets sick. I want to do some food tours & cooking tours in Italy one day. It sounds like you’ve seen some great places. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. I love proscuitto and I have tried many varieties, but I have never tried Proscuitto di Parma.

    I am sure it is scrumptious. I love the Spanish jamón too!

    Lovely post – so thorough and interesting.

    Thanks!

  3. These Italians and Spaniards love their ham!! I think parma ham is my favourite, will have to check this out if I visit Italy!

  4. Sorry that I couldn’t really read this post, as a veggie these pics were freaking me out slightly! I’m glad you enjoyed your food tour though. We are in Italy at the moment and are enjoying sampling their cuisine.

  5. Lyndall - Seize The Day Project

    I do love Parma ham. Must put this tour on my list for the next trip to Italy! 🙂

  6. I love parma and it’s never as good as in Italy or in the South of Switzerland. Try a bit of parma together with honey melon – mmmmh, nothing beats that on a warm summer evening – and of course with a glass of Italian wine.

  7. We did a similar tour when we were in Bologna. I have never seen so much pig in my life. Rows and rows of pig legs hanging everywhere you looked. At the time, I remember thinking it would be some sort of vegetarian’s nightmare!

  8. Wow, what a fascinating tour! We spoiled by the Parma ham when we were in Italy last summer and have not found anything as good since returning. Very interesting fact about the narrow windows, I would never have considered that to impact the drying process. Definitely will take one of these tours when we return to Italy!

  9. WOW – you learned a lot, and I did too – thanks to your narrative. I had no idea about this process. What an interesting food tour – and so fun to taste at the end. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Food tours are awesome because 1. I find it so cool learning about how food is made and 2. Tasting the foods!! 😀 Looks like a fun tour, Kerri!

  11. Tricia @ The Adventure List

    Sorry I had to cruise through the pics and details of this post. I can’t look at how meat is prepared or I won’t eat it again. And I LOVE meat especially ham. Now the cheese tour you did, that is right up my alley. 🙂

  12. I am IN LOVE with this blog post! Lived in Florence for four months in 2011 and I fell in love with prosciutto crudo. I bought a bag of Parma Ham as a Christmas gift when I was coming home but US customs confiscated it (I almost cried…) I wish I had made a trip to see how Parma Ham is produced but now I have this awesome guide 😉

  13. I love how there’s a different room to represent each season. I want to go to this so bad. I love learning how food is made. Thanks for sharing.

  14. How interesting. Most people like me would not know what goes into getting the ham onto the table.

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