What it takes: making Parma ham

Categories: Expert guidance

Philip Crouch of The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand on the work involved in creating Parma ham

Interview: Viel Richardson

Having started as a Parma ham specialist in the early days of Borough Market, Philip Crouch now sources a wonderful array of air dried Italian hams. He buys his Parma ham from Fratelli Galloni—the Galloni brothers. “These guys are known as being among the best producers, and we go over to visit them quite often—at least twice a year,” he says. “We talk to them, we see what they’re doing and have developed a real understanding of how they go about their work.”

Are your visits to the producers important?
They are hugely important to us. The Parma ham industry is a massive one, which produces millions of hams each year. There are strict rules, but there will be variations in the quality of meat each producer buys and the scale of their production facility. Fratelli Galloni is one of the smaller producers, and they only select the best quality pork.

How many producers of Parma ham are there?
I think at the last count it was about 140. The ham’s protected status means that they all have to be based in a specific area south of Parma, around the town of Langhirano.

Do the pigs have to come from this region as well?
No. There are 10 specified regions of Italy where you can raise pigs that can be certified for Parma ham: Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Molise, Umbria, Tuscany, Marche, Abruzzo and Lazio. The pigs must be either pure-bred Large White or Landrace breeds, or else cross bred with one of them.

What part of the pig is used for making Parma ham?
Each ham is made from a rear leg. The Galloni brothers select every leg they take. The legs are going to be aged for a significant amount of time, so the percentage and quality of the fat is extremely important. Once the hams are selected, they are taken to curing houses. These are great big warehouses that can only be used for curing ham. You can always recognise them because they have a very specific architecture.

What happens then?
The legs are first salted by the maestro salatore [salt master]. The skin is covered with humid sea salt, while the exposed flesh is covered with dry salt. The leg is then refrigerated at 1C to 4C, with a humidity level of approximately 80 per cent. This cold, salty environment is where the magic of the salt’s effect on the ham begins to take place. After about a week, the hams get another salting and are moved to other refrigerated rooms with a slightly lower humidity, about 75 per cent, for 60 to 90 days. After this the hams are washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt and impurities, then hung in drying rooms for a few more days.

Is this the end of the process?
No, it is actually just the end of the beginning. The hams are then hung on frames in well-ventilated rooms with large windows that are opened when the outside temperature and humidity are favourable. This allows the legs to dry at a slow and constant pace. The exposed flesh is covered with a paste of minced lard and salt in order to prevent the hams drying too quickly. This period is critical to the development of that distinctive flavour. By the end, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened.

When the salt master is happy, the hams are transferred to the ‘cellars’: rooms with less air and light than the hams have been exposed to so far. Here, they are hung on racks in these rooms to complete the curing process. By law, Parma ham must be cured for at least a year, starting from the date of first salting, and may be cured for as long as three years.

Is there much mechanisation involved?
Actually, the majority of the process is done by hand. If you go into the curing houses you will see the maestros going around feeling the skin and pressing the ham to see how firm or soft it is in various places; this is how they check if the curing process is progressing well. They also carry a horse bone needle, which they insert into the ham. Apparently this is very good at taking on the smell, so they can get an idea of what is going on inside the ham. It’s all a bit theatrical and there are probably more modern ways to do this, but there is no reason to change it.

What are the risks involved in this process?
One of the reasons that aged hams can be quite expensive is that there is always a percentage that ‘fail’. This means that despite the skills of the maestros, the curing process does not proceed properly in a ham and the meat starts to go off. There is nothing that can be done with these hams but to discard them.

How are the hams sold?
They can be sold in three different ways: with the bone taken out, with the bone left in, or with the ham pre-sliced. We are among the few sellers that buy them with the bone left in and remove it ourselves here in the UK. We feel that you get a more consistently high quality of ham in terms of taste and texture if the bone is left on longer. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you the reason, but it is something we have discovered over 12 years of selling hams.