by Roderick Conway Morris

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Parma Goes in Search of New Markets

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARMA, Italy 10 April 1995


In the 3rd century B.C., when Hannibal arrived with his elephants on the rich northern Italian plain, the people of Parma thanked him for liberating them from their Roman masters by offering gifts of a remarkable local delicacy: raw, cured ham.

Today, prosciutto di Parma, or Parma ham,is world-famous.Yet most of it is still consumed locally.Italians eat 85 percent of the 7.5 million hams produced each year.

So perhaps it is not surprising that Parma's ham-makers are now actively surveying new gastronomic territories to conquer --notably, Japan.

'There is a great interest there in Western cuisine and in particular, apparently, in Italian cooking,' said Massimo Montuschi, a former research chemist who now works for the Parma Ham Consortium, which represents more than 200 producers.

'There is already a considerable number of Italian restaurants in Japan, so there's now a big demand for Italian food,' he said, 'and Parma is, naturally, one of the most distinctive elements in our cuisine.'

Mr. Montuschi spoke during a recent drive to Langhirano, a small town about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of Parma that, with over 100 factories, forms the epicenter ofParma ham country.

'Interest among Japanese importers and distributors has been especially strong over the last two years, and we've been involved in detailed negotiations with the Japanese government since then,' Mr. Montuschi said.

In addition to impressing Japanese consumers with their product's sweet-salty flavor and deep pink color, Parma's ham producers must also satisfy the extremely finicky Japanese health inspectors, who scrutinize all food imports for possible safety and health hazards.

Japanese inspectors have already visited Italy to select suitable suppliers for their market, and 22 manufacturers have been singled out. This spring, the first Japanese veterinarians will begin to monitor the curing process -- from the arrival of the fresh hams to the moment they are ready for sale.

While the taste of Parma ham has fascinated gourmets for centuries, it is only in the past decade that scientists have taken an interest in how it is made -- the silent, cool, almost magical process by which a leg of highly perishable raw pork is turned into a succulent food that can keep long periods without refrigeration.

IN fact, Mr. Montuschi said, Parma's ham producers have subjected their product to rigorous testing to allay the safety concerns of importing countries -- especially the United States, currently the largest market for the hams outside Europe. 'We managed to prove to them through a series of tests both here and in America that any traces of these possible diseases disappeared completely during the curing process, and that the hams are to all intents and purposes sterile.'

Health concerns kept Parma ham out of the U.S. market for 20 years.Since the first hams were exported to the United States in 1989, the number of hams sold abroad has been increasing steadily,and markets have opened up in Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico as well.

The factories of Langhirano, each of which produces between 30,000 and 250,000 hams a year, look like residential apartment blocks, with numerous windows to allow a continuous flow of air.

On the ground floor of one medium-sized company, four men were busy removing freshly delivered hams, washing them and rubbing over them a couple of fistfuls of rough-grained salt.

The joints are then hung on racks and moved into a dark, cold room, where they remain for about a week before the salting process was repeated.

Mr. Montuschi said Parma ham tasted sweeter and more delicate than other cured hams because very little salt is necessary to the curing process.This, he said, is because the Parma area boasts an unusually dry microclimate, so less salt is required to dry the hams.

'The prevailing south wind is very even and continuous. It blows off the sea along the Ligurian coast, but having passed through the olive groves and woods on the way, it arrives here very low in humidity,' Mr. Montuschi said.

After the initial salting, the hams are 'rested' for several months in rooms ventilated by constant currents of air.The end of the hams are then sealed with pork kidney grease mixed with with a little salt and pepper to stop the exposed, muscular part from drying too rapidly

The hams are then transferred for the remaining months to a cantina, or cellar -- a vast, cool hall with smaller windows.The sight of tens of thousands of now golden-skinned hams,floor to ceiling, stretching silently into the distance in serried ranks,makes for an awesome spectacle.

By law a Parma ham must mature for at least 12 months. The hams sent to the United States, however,are seasoned for at least 400 days, and Japan will probably adopt the same regulation.

The curing process is essentially a matter of gradual water loss.A ham loses nearly 30 percent of its weight during the process. Since all microorganisms need water to survive, they are simply eliminated when the seasoning gets to a certain point.

'We have shown that even the most resistant virus will be destroyed within 300 to 350 days. So the idea of fixing on 400 days is partly to leave a very wide margin of error, to make sure that it is absolutely impossible for the slightest trace to be left. But this is certainly no problem for us, since very many hams for the domestic market are kept back this long, because it is generally agreed that the taste becomes better and more refined.'

Mr. Montuschi produced a slender, ice-pick-like spike made of horse bone. He selected a ham and pressed the implementgently into the flesh near the the protruding knuckle. Withdrawing it, he passed it under his nose,muchasa connoisseur would do when savoring a Havana cigar

'If there's the slightest thing not quite right with the ham, which happens only once in a blue moon, you can tell immediately from the odor that clings to the horse-bone,' he said.

Italian government veterinarians check every stage of the process, and the consortium has its own vets who inspect the slaughter, manufacture and sale of the hams.

Beginning next year they will be monitoring even more closely the raising of the pigs.

The monitoring even extends to what suppliers are allowed to feed Parma pigs.While some farmers use soya, others use the whey of milk left over from making the area's other famous delicacy -- Parmesan cheese.'Many farmers now make use of soya, and the whey of the milk left from making Parmesan and other similar cheeses hereabouts, which is very good for the animals. In fact, nearly all the cheese-makers in this part of the world also raise pigs for Parma hams.'

'All in all,' said Mr. Montuschi, 'the technology for making Parma ham is very traditional and very simple. It's mainly a case of having the right climate, selectinga first-class primary product, experience, careful monitoring... and patience. And the great appeal, apart from its unique taste, is that it contains no artificial preservatives or additives and it's an entirely 'natural' product.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022