We arrive in Reggio Emilia, a small medieval village between Parma and Bologna; it is smack dab in the middle of Prosciutto Ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese country.
We have come here to visit artisan Prosciutto and Parmigiano makers who use traditional methods specific to Reggio. We also come here to eat.
The Italians value their rich culinary heritage and the long history of traditional Italian foods. In order to protect this heritage, they have a system of verification that identifies traditional products. The aim is to to ensure that all their time-honored victuals are preserved and held to a strict standard for quality, excellence and originality.
Prosciutto hams and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses are just two of the products that bear the label along with breads, oils, balsamic, Roma tomatoes and pastas. The DOP label ensures that they are recognized for their cultural heritage and place of origin.
Our first venture takes us to the Langhirano valley just south of Parma.
Here beside the Apennines Mountains, one hundred and seven Prosciutto “factories” produce around 10 million freshly cured Prosciutto hams each year. This requires a mere 5 million pigs as each porcine offer up two fat haunches.
We enter a “prosciutteria” just as a truck of freshly harvested thighs arrive, trembling marbled and pink. These legs have been chosen for their exquisite amount of fat because the more fat, the sweeter the Prosciutto shall be.
The swine lived heartily in this region feasting on a variety of locally produced foods: cereals, barley, leftover whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano production, even out-of-date yogurt has been their diet.
Harvested at 9 months, each leg weighs 33 pounds when it arrives, bearing two tattoos. This is the beginning of the tracing process that allows them to bear the DOP Label.
The blue tattoo tells us where and when the piglet was born. The red one indicates which exporter has ordered Prosciutto; they know from the beginning who will receive each precious leg.
The process is long and complicated and begins with a vigorous massage, so the muscles relax and become ready to receive the Adriatic Sea salt properly.
This curing process is called “Stagionatura” and is the natural and traditional drying process that designates DOP prosciutto. Many generations have cured hams in this way.
A salt master soundly salts the legs and lays them down for 20 days where they’ll rest just above freezing. After which our little “ham” is rinsed with water and again put to bed for another 70 days – without salt.
During this Stagionatura process the “prosciutto maestro” carefully monitors the baby hams.
He sniffs and listens and understands them. Sometimes he must throw open the doors and windows to let the breeze from the Liguria Sea pass through the building.
This breeze off the mountains cools the valley, and the hams breathe in the sea air.
Breathing, they become smaller and drier.
After many months the salt air has brought natural yeasts and a bit of good mold. According to DOP regulation, the hams are regularly checked for bacteria levels.
The master decides when to wash the hams one last time – only when they smell sweet and fruity.
When we enter this room, we smell strawberry, apricot and honey. Divinity is at work in this fermentation!
Once the bacteria are removed, the hams are slathered with a paste made from pig-fat, rice flour, pepper, salt and water.
With this cover, they are held at 68 degrees until the DOP inspectors, and the maestro decides they are ready to be branded with a crown and the word “Parma.”
The inspection of the ham is done by inserting the bone of a horse deep inside the pasty mixture into the very meat of the leg. The horse bone is porous and takes enough of the smell into it to test its finality.
The entire process from harvest to finished Prosciutto is a minimum of 13-14 months. Better yet is 24 or 30 months, and the maximum age for curing is 42 months.
Only the hand and nose of the master knows what is best.
At the end of this artful process, our fine ham now weighs a mere 22 pounds – having lost a third of its weight.
At farm-gate, these artisans receive about 300 euros (about $339) per finished ham.
After witnessing the process, we are utterly famished and led straight away to a nearby winery to taste the oldest of the Prosciuttos.
The winery grows all of its grapes and ferments DOP Lambrusco wine. A bottle is popped, and a royal purple liquid bubbles forth with the slightest hint of effervescence.
To the nose, it smells sweet, but the taste is not. It is dry with hints of tobacco and apricot.
We heartily sip this low alcohol goblet which pairs perfectly with the strips of soft sweet Prosciutto laying before us. Our little hams!
What better way to end the afternoon before we witness the birth of DOP Parmigiano-Reggiano?