I’ve heard of fake Gucci bags, fake Rolex watches, fake tans, but fake hams? This was a first for me. In Parma last month, I had the chance to join a guided tour of a Parma ham facility and I jumped at it. I wanted to see just what puts the Parma into Parma ham, a brand so precious to the producers that they spend about €1 million each year on protecting it.
Parma ham as no additives. The only thing that touches it, other than human hands, is salt – rock salt. When it comes in to the facility, it is trimmed of excess fat and given that distinctive shape. It’s then stamped with its birth date – the date it entered the facility and then given a metal seal saying which slaughterhouse it came from (a little like a passport).
Not alone does it have an ideal shape, each ham has an ideal weight – about 15kg. The mind boggles. The production process takes time with each ham getting lots of personal attention in the way of salt massages. It’s salted, rinsed, cold-stored for a couple of weeks, and then salted, rinsed, and stored again. It goes from a cold phase to a warm phase (tempered) and is washed and dried and cured. Each stage can take a couple of weeks and through the whole process (which can take 6 months) it loses about 36% of its original weight.
It’s manually greased with a mix of pork fat, rice flour, and black pepper, to soften up the outside. What a job. And then it’s aged. To be a Parma ham, it has to be at least 12 months old, with 16-18 months being the most popular age. And before it gets the final stamp of approval, it’s manually controlled. It’s quickly pierced in five places with a wooden skewer which is then immediately smell-checked. This is a skill, believe me. And I can’t imagine how it works as a chat-up line. So, what do you do for a living?
Once it’s passed the in-house quality test, the powers that be are called in and if it meets with their approval, it gets the final seal of authenticity. These large hunks of ham can have as many as five seals, just in case some time down the road, they are sold as smaller pieces – if they don’t have the seal, they’re not Parma ham.
The facility I visited had a 70 000 piece capacity. The building, with its isolated elevators and clearly numbered cold storage rooms, was state of the art. The open windows in the drying room begged the question as to why. Apparently, Parma production facilities are located in a particular geographic area where the winds from the sea meet the mountain air and it’s this wind or aromatic air (the Marino wind) that gives the meat its flavour.
Retailing at about €25/kg, it has shelf life of about a year. And only the hind legs of the pig are used and those pigs are usually from North and Central Italy, not from the south or Sardinia.
I think I overdosed on it all though – as by the end of the week in Tuscany, I’d had enough. It’s only now, a month later, that I can face it again. And I’m on the lookout for fakes, ready, willing, and parmed to report any fakes