Prosciutto di Parma. Somehow it sounds so much more romantic in Italian. Farmers in the countryside surrounding the little town of Parma (which will forever be synonymous with ham) have been air-drying pigs’ thighs for over two thousand years.
Prosciutto – ham in Italian – originally comes from the Latin perexsiccatus which then morphed into the Italian prosciugare – to dry. Parma ham is a prosciutto crudo or raw ham: the hind leg or thigh of a pig that has been dry-cured with salt for a couple of months then washed and hung in a dark, well-ventilated room to dry and aged for up to a year and a half.
In the UK we often use Parma ham as the generic term for prosciutto. However, although Parma in Emilia-Romagna has PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status for its ham– it is by no means the only area to produce mouth-watering prosciutto. Some claim that the prosciutto from San Daniele (Fuili) is better – it’s certainly more expensive - and you can get air-dried ham in Piedmont too, the Veneto, Umbria and Tuscany…
So what differentiates them? In Parma production is on a huge scale but, of course, there are still small producers. And every farmer has his own method. The breed of pig influences the flavour, the diet it’s fed (San Daniele pigs eat a lot of acorns) the temperature and altitude when it’s cured.
Parma ham, for example, is known for its sweetness, Tuscan ham for its saltiness.
Of course, purists will say you should, if you can afford it, buy a whole ham. Don’t buy pre-packaged slices. But not all of us have a handy larder in which to hang a slab of pig.
If you do, or even if you just buy sliced Parma ham from your local deli, there is so much more to prosciutto than the (admittedly heavenly) restaurant staple, Parma ham and melon. Wow your dinner guests with Parma ham wrapped around grissini or bread sticks with their aperitifs. Or toss it into a creamy pasta sauce, on top of a homemade pizza or jazz up a sandwich Panini. Or crisp in a pan and use as a garnish on soups.
Or keep it simple. An old breadboard, a slab of Italian cheese, fresh figs, a bottle of Chianti and wafer-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma. The perfect impromptu summer supper.