Pork, Salt, Air, and Time: The Long Road to Prosciutto di Parma

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

The curing cellar at Pio Tosini unfolds in more directions than the eye can see. Salted hams hang on floor-to-ceiling racks in long corridors, each a mirror image of the next. It's vast and eerily still, but undeniably alive; I feel as though I've been swept into a current of silent, invisible activity. A molecular ecosystem is hard at work here, a partnership of mountain breezes, enzymatic reactions, and microorganisms that will, with time, transform each leg of pork into coveted prosciutto di Parma. The smell is overpowering, a riot of yeast and funk, and the air is saline-sweet, slightly piney, and crisp. Light washes in from open windows, breaking into jagged shadows on the floor. Pio Tosini is a cathedral, and its god is Ham.

And then, in an instant, the spell is broken. Someone's camera flash goes off, throats are cleared, and our tour of the cellar begins. "Prosciutto di Parma is a simple product," Giovanni Bianchi says in a lilting Italian accent. "It's nothing but pork, sea salt, air, and time." Bianchi, the slender, genial fourth-generation owner of the family-run facility, is taking us through the aging process—a period of salting and resting in cool, humid temperatures; the gradual drying and greasing of the legs to prevent spoilage and excessive moisture loss; a final curing in the expansive cellar before they're ready for packaging and sale. I try to listen, but instead I imagine dashing through the halls of dangling hams, running my fingertips over their yellowed skins. I want to pluck one off the wall and hack it open with a knife, tear at the meat with my teeth, with my gnawed-down fingernails. I want to peel off a paper-thin slice, hold it to the light, and then gently lay it on my tongue to dissolve, all sweet and nutty and buttery-smooth. Screw the cathedral; Pio Tosini is a brothel. The things I'd do to this room.

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

It's the final leg of my tour of the 110-year-old prosciuttificio, located a few miles outside of Parma proper. In a moment, we'll step out of the warm glow of the cellar into a bare, antiseptic hallway and dine on tender, translucent slices of prosciutto. I'll eat several meals' worth of cured meat and then, masochistically, giddily, set off to a four-course lunch down the road. Hearty, meat-heavy fare is the way of life, it seems, in the comune of Langhirano, a bucolic vista of rolling hills and sloping vineyards in the north-central region of Emilia-Romagna. Parma, and Langhirano in particular, Bianchi explains, has long capitalized on its geographical features—a confluence of aromatic pine and chestnut forests, verdant river valleys, and dry sea breezes that collectively make up a "unique microclimate," optimal for everything from breeding livestock to curing meat to growing the grapes for dry, fizzy Lambrusco wine.

But it's more than just terroir that distinguishes prosciutto di Parma—it's the symbiotic relationship between the region's ham and its other culinary claim to fame, Parmigiano Reggiano. Pigs destined to become prosciutto di Parma have a diet enhanced by the milky whey left over from Parmesan cheese production, for a signature nutty-sweet flavor that pervades each slice of meat. This is the prosciutto that captures my heart; it always has.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

I don't know when I had my first taste of prosciutto, but I can't recall life without it. When I was growing up in New York, it was the food I'd sneak from the family fridge in the middle of the night. Prosciutto is what I bought with my allowance money in middle school, and it's the only item I've ever forcefully tried to convince my best and oldest friend to incorporate into her kosher diet. It's my desert-island food, my special-occasion treat, and an everyday snack. I don't hesitate to make a quarter pound of fresh-sliced prosciutto di Parma my lunch—one of the many luxuries of working in Little Italy. More often than not, I prefer it uncooked and unadorned. I especially like to eat it in solitude so I can perform various rituals of reverence, most of which involve dangling, sniffing, and a period of general admiration (the translucency! The pliability!) before tearing the ham into melt-in-your-mouth-size pieces with my fingers.

For years, though, I was a novice when it came to picking out the good stuff. As a teenager, I bought all manner of prosciutto packaged in flat plastic envelopes with distant expiration dates. In retrospect, many were likely American-made—not a condemnation in itself, but certainly less reliable. Especially since I paid little mind to brand names or additives or provenance; I bought what I could afford, and I hoped for the best. I'd ease the corner pull-tab back and peel the slices off their sheets of shiny white paper. Sometimes I'd devour it all during the two-block walk home from the supermarket; other times, I'd wind up tossing the whole thing. Hoping, I would learn, is a pretty crap way to get reliable results. Hoping gets you thickly sliced, over-salted, tough, dry, chemically treated prosciutto that has virtually nothing in common with the mild, tender, aromatic, salty sweetness of the real deal.

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

Which is the whole point of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, an organization of roughly 150 Parma Ham producers that operates under the auspices of the European Union (and, full disclosure, is hosting my trip). The consortium first formed in 1963, when the Italian government introduced the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) system—a method of quality control and assurance that was absorbed by the EU's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) regulations in 1996. It's a jumble of acronyms, I know, but they're crucial to the livelihood of Parma's prosciutto producers. Like its fellow PDO products—San Marzano tomatoes, Gorgonzola cheese, and so forth—prosciutto di Parma is a legislated and monitored label that can only be applied to merchandise that's been sourced and prepared under particular conditions within a specified geographic area.

There's a whole chain of tracking codes, tags, and stamps used over the course of the slaughter and aging process, but consumers can best recognize true Parma-made ham by the five-point ducal crown that's branded on each haunch (or plastered on supermarket packages of the presliced stuff). Before that branding takes place, though, the final product has to be approved by an inspector. Back in Pio Tosini's curing cellar, I witness one at work. His job? Repeatedly plunging a traditional ago di osso di cavallo, or horse bone needle, into each ham at multiple points. The bone both absorbs and releases scents remarkably quickly, so he moves at a lightning pace, lifting the tip to his nose each time and inhaling deeply. His rigorously trained sense of smell is charged with noting any signs of spoilage, as well as ensuring that the ham has been sufficiently aged. Satisfied, he lifts a fiery brand and presses it to the surface of the meat. Smoke curls, and I get a mouthwatering waft of sizzling fat.

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

Sure, the brand is an excellent marketing tool, but to its advocates, it's also a reliable indicator of a prosciutto's provenance and consistency. Considering that Parma Ham consists of nothing more than the hindquarter of a pig and some sea salt, I find myself amazed by just how many standards have to be met, from the breed of pig (Duroc, Large White, or Landrace), to their diet and age at time of slaughter, to the volume of salt the hams are treated with, the altitude at which they're processed, and the length of time they're hung to cure. Too much salt, and the ham loses its trademark sweetness; too little curing time, and it's excessively moist, without the nuanced funk that comes with age. We've covered the step-by-step procedure and regulations, but suffice it to say it's a painstaking process that takes a minimum of a year from start to finish.

So do all these measures imply that no other cured ham in the world is worth your dime? Absolutely not—there are other well-regarded PDO prosciuttos in Italy, namely the milder, buttery prosciutto di San Daniele, not to mention renowned Spanish varieties, like the revered jamón Ibérico de bellota, for which pigs are fed a special diet of acorns. But the Consorzio's regulations do ensure that when you buy prosciutto di Parma, it will have a baseline level of quality.

Then again, just because its quality is guaranteed doesn't mean all Parma Ham is created equal. "Every producer and manufacturer of prosciutto di Parma has to adhere to the procedures set forth by the Consorzio," acknowledges Bianchi. "But even though we follow those parameters, they're just margins. The biggest differences come from the raw materials that you use."

Giovanni Bianchi, of Pio Tosini. [Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

At Pio Tosini, Bianchi rejects a high percentage of the legs he's purchased from the slaughterhouse, even though they technically meet the baseline criteria set forth by the Consorzio: "Our parameters are more strict—we like to work with especially massive, meaty legs with exceptional fat coverage." A thick layer of fat insulates the meat, promising even drying and a melt-in-your-mouth texture, he explains. "If the legs don't meet our standards, we send them back to the slaughterhouse" for a replacement or refund. "They'll sell them to a facility with different expectations," Bianchi notes.

Pio Tosini is also the only remaining prosciutto di Parma facility that completely halts production during the spring months. It's a traditional measure that all producers used to take—spring pigs experience hormonal changes that impact the quality of their fat. In more recent decades, livestock have been selectively bred to minimize these changes, allowing producers to operate year-round. But Bianchi insists that he still notices a difference. "It means that we have a lower volume of product, but it guarantees higher quality across the board."

That devotion to tradition is perhaps the reigning difference between the dwindling number of smaller-scale, family-owned operations like Pio Tosini and the contractors and corporations that flocked to the Parma region in the '90s and early aughts, eager to stake a claim on the higher profit margins that come with manufacturing a PDO product. "Economically, it's a struggle," says Paolo Tanara, former president of the Consorzio and co-owner of another longstanding family business, Giancarlo Tanara. "For many bigger companies, prosciutto di Parma is just one element of their business; they adhere to the minimum standards in order to qualify for the label. But for us, it is a passion." That means that sometimes, like Bianchi, he holds his product to an even higher standard.

Large companies haven't just shifted supply and demand—industrialization has also impacted the animals themselves. "Breeders worked a lot on the genetics and diet of the pig," claims Bianchi. "In a certain way, things actually got worse; the water content in the meat has increased a lot." Marbled meat, he adds, used to be more standard. But in more recent decades, pigs have been bred to have less intramuscular fat—a coup when it comes to better consistency from one leg to the next, but which can nonetheless result in increased moisture retention. "Thirty or 40 years ago, prosciutto was ready in 10, maybe 12 months. Now, because of that extra moisture, it takes us a minimum of 18 months, and up to 24 months, to get the same final product."

By aging his ham for so long, Bianchi is actually surpassing the minimum required by the Consorzio—companies operating on PDO regulations alone are technically able to send their prosciutto to market in just one year (or 400 days, for export to the US). But at just 12 months, less moisture has evaporated from the meat, which means that some companies are selling a heavier product at a faster rate, while businesses like Pio Tosini and Giancarlo Tanara, determined to preserve family tradition, are experiencing longer turnaround times that delay sales and increase production costs.

When I ask Tanara if the extra time is worth it, let alone sustainable, he hesitates. "Younger prosciutto is more moist and straightforward. I like it for pastas and panini, but it's not as special for eating on its own." He chuckles as he recalls tasting a five-year-old prosciutto that a friend had forgotten about in his cellar. "It looked terrible, so dark and dry on the outside. But when we cut in, it was perfect, the best prosciutto I've ever tasted. Very complex, very intense." I must sound a little too intrigued, because he warns me not to give it a try at home—food safety in this case was far from guaranteed. Regardless, it's a testament to the extremes the meat can endure. Typically, an 18- to 24-month-old ham has undergone more enzymatic and bacterial action than its year-old counterparts: both will be fatty, smooth, and sweet, to be sure, but let the longer-cured ham sit on your tongue, and you'll catch earthy, floral notes and the rounded flavor of fermentation.

That extra effort on the part of smaller producers does allow them to increase price points, but it does little to help them compete against higher volume brands, who can supply huge Italian supermarket chains in bulk. Increasingly, smaller-scale manufacturers are turning to the international market to stay afloat—there's plenty of growth happening abroad, where a rising political investment in slow food, small businesses, and artisanal goods is matched with a flourishing appreciation for rustic Italian fare. The American market has provided Tanara with plenty of opportunities to get his foot in the door, especially when it comes to the proliferating number of specialty foods stores. "I think in the United States, especially, people are increasingly appreciative of the nuances and history of the product," he says.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Back home in New York, it certainly looks that way: PDO prosciutto is more frequently marked on restaurant menus than ever before, and most high-end supermarkets carry at least one or two brands of Parma Ham. In part, that's thanks to the Consorzio's promotional efforts, which range from press outreach to special events and trade shows. They'll even tell you where you can find a specialist in your area.

"There's no such thing as bad prosciutto di Parma," says Lou Di Palo, smiling under a baseball cap from behind the smooth marble counter at Di Palo Selects, the Little Italy institution just a stone's throw from the Serious Eats offices. He's slicing his preferred brand—Galloni prosciutto, another fourth-generation family business—in a deli slicer (a fixture in every Parma home, I'm told). I watch the jewel-toned sheets fall onto glossy plastic, one after another. I've only been home for a few days, but it seems no amount of gorging can make me sick of the stuff; I'm mesmerized. Lou slips me a slice to savor while he wraps my quarter pound in a neat bundle. "What else?" he asks. I gaze at the cases of fine cheeses and prepared foods, a basket overflowing with balls of fresh mozzarella. I shake my head and hand him my credit card. I already have everything I need.

Disclaimer: The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma arranged for this trip.