How Parma ham is made

by Marcelo Pinto  July 8th 2012

Italy’s cozy town of Parma has been known for Prosciutto di Parma for over 2,000 years. The secret recipes of these air-dried hams have changed hands throughout history within families. It is a product of man’s passion and skill, combined with nature. The Parma ham has put Italy on the global gastronomic map due to its uniqueness.

The micro-climate of Parma is very conducive to the ham production, with its dry and airy summers and cold winters. Humidity levels are moderate, while the air carries the smell of the sea and chestnut trees. To maintain the high quality of Parma ham, it must be kept away from variations in climate. The production area is restricted to a height less than 900 meters above sea level on the Parma hills, since regions lying above this height face a very cold and long winter. The production area must also be 5 kilometers away from the humid and foggy Via Emilia along the Po River. The limits are the Enza River on the east and the Stirone River on the west, which bring in fragrant sea breezes that roll down into Parma valley.

The curing of the ham is crucial to its quality. It is carried out by natural methods, even though they take as long as 12 months and require immense care, patience and skill. Traditions have evolved over time, with more refined breeding and farming procedures. This has made the pork sweeter and more tender.

Knowing the process of curing the meat is not enough. The ‘master salters’ from Parma have learned from their ancestors how to identify good pork legs, trim the hams by hand and apply salt properly to ensure outstanding quality. The latter is a deciding factor for determining the quality of the curing process and retaining the sweetness of the ham.

The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma or Parma Ham Consortium was established in 1963. It started with 23 members and has now 180 members. Their mission is to maintain the quality and tradition of Parma ham by sticking to natural methods; salt and air are the only additives. With records kept regarding the origin, birth date and breeding method for each pig, all production stages are closely monitored by the Istituto Parma Qualita, an independent certifying body, in keeping with the rules of the Consortium. A special law was even laid down by the Italian government. The Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) has been recently awarded to Parma air-dried ham, giving it copyright over the name.

The pigs from which Parma ham is made have to be heavy and their meat must be soft, yet firm. They have to be born and raised only on an authorized breeding farm in one of the 11 designated Northern and Central regions of Italy. Traditionally they are fed whey, a by-product of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This imparts a unique flavor to their meat.

The hams are exposed to constant cold and humid conditions for 100 days, after which they are kept in large maturing rooms for 3 months. This way they are protected from the sun. The windows are constantly opened and closed for circulation of the countryside air. In the seventh month, a mixture of pork fat and pepper called sugnatura is hand-applied onto the open surface of the meat. This is meant to protect and soften it. The hams are then put in cantina or cellars for at least 5 months, so that they can slowly dry under close supervision. The producers are trained and experienced in detecting any quality defects by the sense of smell. The spillatura is a horse bone needle which is used to check the curing outcome, before assigning the precious label of ‘Parma Ham’.

The ham gets several imprints in the various stages of production. The breeder makes a permanent tattoo onto the hind legs of the piglets, consisting of the month of its birth and the identification code of the farm. At the slaughterhouse, the initials PP (for Prosciutto di Parma) are fire-branded onto the pork legs if they are worthy enough to be sent to the production line as Parma Ham. At the entry to the curing house, the legs are stamped with a metal seal having the Consortium code and the month and year when curing started. After passing all verification and regulatory tests, the legs are finally fire-branded with the 5-pointed Ducal Crown of the Consortium, along with the name, ‘Parma’. The producer’s code is added under the crown. This is the guarantee of a 100% natural and light Parma ham that is a product of age-old traditions.

A slice of Parma ham has a delicious country aroma; it is succulent and thin, with a distinctive salty-sweet taste. It is best enjoyed stand-alone and no other air-dried ham comes close to Parma Ham in bringing you this divine gastronomic experience.

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by Janice on Emilia Delizia

We had a wonderful tour, best part about visiting the Modena region!

by Bing Liem on Emilia Delizia
Emilia Delizia

The tour was perfect. I think Paolo would be a splendid ambassador for Italy in the EU. He knows how excellent Italian food and eating together can solve many major problems, and can stop aggressive behavior. Not the hunt for more money, but the well being of family and friends counts. Paolo shows us the products of ages of civilization and he did this like an artist. So after the tour we really love Italia more and we'll come back. We will call you Paolo, Thanks!

by Avihai on Emilia Delizia

Following two tours with your guides this week I would like to express my thanks for some wonderful experiences.
Monday we did the tour of cheese making, balsamic and Salami which was very good and the guide Paolo was very knowledgeable.
The truffle hunt tour today was absolutely amazing, the guide Stefano is pure gold and the tour was built with much thought. Our best experience so far, by far.

Looking forward to more tours and fun next time we are in Italy.

by Johnathan on Emilia Delizia
Super food and super cars

The group (and me) was VERY satisfied. We really enjoyed the Parmegiano Regiano which was interesting and we got to buy some delicate and cheap cheese, the same with the balsamico. The Ferrari driving was off course an experience for life. The Winery lunch felt very genuine and the people there was really welcoming and nice people. The genuine feeling there was however the big plus for us.
Paolo was excellent as our guide. He also felt very genuine. He did not talk just for the sake of talking, but when he had something to say he did it in a respectful and nice way. Everyone in the group really liked him.

Thank you!

by Susan on Emilia Delizia
Lovely food tour and cooking class

Hi Gabriele:

I wanted to let you know what a great day we had this past Friday on our tour with Jacamo. (Probably not spelling it right) He was very nice and explained everything to us. It sure gives you a new appreciation when you are slicing cheese. 🙂 Our tour ended with him taking us to the vineyard for a tour and lunch and there, Paolo, the owner could not have been more nicer. It was a perfect ending.

Please let Jacamo know what a great job he did and how much we really appreciated it and his knowledge

by Simone&Vasco on Emilia Delizia
Food tour in Modena

The website is well structured and we received a prompt answer to all questions. Gabriele supported us with all information we needed and the organization before the trip was excellent.
We had an air conditioned van, which was very relaxing through the whole tour. The first stop was the parmigiano production, which was very impressive and interesting. We could learn and especially see all the different steps and even taste the various aged parmigiano. The second step was the balsamic vinegar tasting. Finally the meat part was interesting in the museum but we hoped that we also could see more about the production and their work, but the tasting was delicious. In overall we had a very informative and well accommodated half day with our guide

by Kimie on Emilia Delizia
Fantastic Tour!!

It was great experience! We visited Parmesan cheese production, Balsamic vinegar farm, Ham museum and Farmer's lunch. Our guide gave us a detailed explanation, we were very satisfied. An excellent tour for a reasonable price, highly recommended.

by Shirley on Emilia Delizia
Gourmet tour

Nous sommes une famille de cinq et nous avons adoré notre expérience. Les trois endroits étaient choisis judicieusement. Notre guide était très généreuse et super gentille. Nous recommandons ce tour ( parmesan, vinaigre balsamique et jambon de parme).

by Jennifer S. on Emilia Delizia
Tour Extraordinaire!

My family felt our first trip to Italy must include a tour of a Parmesan Cheese Factory so when I stumbled on this website several months ago I had no idea what I treasure I found! From the moment I submitted a request for the tour, my experience with Emilia Delizia was first rate. Gabriele provided excellent customer service by patiently answering all my questions to guide me through the selection and reservation of our Foodie Delight Tour. Paolo, our driver, was prompt, cordial and knowledgeable about the processes we were observing and the area in general conveying loads of information with his well-developed English speaking skills. Our stop in Modena fell on a Saturday so we were quite fortunate to end up with a private tour which allowed us to have a nice, personal interaction with the people at each site. Everyone was friendly, generous with the tastings and we never felt rushed to move along to the next location. Now that we have returned to the states, my family agrees this tour was a highlight of our 10 day trip. I was really looking forward to this excursion and am glad to report it exceeded my expectations.

by Roy on Emilia Delizia
Ferrari test Drive

Unbelievable!!! Totally recommend the full hour to anyone and was more than I expected.
I also want to recognize Alex Pignone who accompanied me,He was very professional and extremely knowledgeable and made me feel like I have known Him forever and where two friends out for a cruise.
Thank You for allowing me to get one more item off my bucket list.

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