Parma ham is cured using a dry method. Also known as prosciutto, the best Parma ham is made, logically enough, in Parma, Italy. It is served in paper-thin slices. The length and manner of aging contribute mightily to the quality of the ham. It must be cured over a long period of time and in relatively cool, well-ventilated conditions.
A familiar, even ubiquitous member of a true antipasto, Parma ham also makes an appearance in a number of other well-loved Italian dishes. As an appetizer, cantaloupe or honeydew melon slices wrapped in ham offer the perfect balance of subtle sweetness and salt. Prosciutto can top a pizza and works well in a creamy pasta carbonara.
The best Parma ham is cured using sea salt rather than nitrates, which can cause cancer. Some aficionados claim that only Parma ham made from the thigh or leg of a wild boar will do. Others claim domestic pig meat can be used for nearly the same result.
The meat is initially heavily salted for a period of several months. During this time, steady pressure is applied to force out moisture. Once the ham is truly dry, it’s time to hang it in a cool shed or cellar where clean air circulates. It can take as long as two full years for a large ham to be properly cured.
True Parma ham is known as prosciutto crudo di Parma. It offers the slightest aroma of nuts. Capicola, which is also dry-cured and thinly sliced, is made from the shoulder of the pig rather than the hind leg or thigh. Both are a deep rose red in color.
The Consorzio de Prosciutto di Parma, a consortium dedicated to the production of top-quality ham, takes its job seriously. Hams that bear its stamp of approval, the Ducal Crown, are aged for a minimum of 14 months. The Instituto Parma Qualita oversees how pigs intended for prosciutto are fed, slaughtered, and aged.
The very best dry-cured ham is made from pigs bred for this purpose, most often Landrace or Large Whites. In addition to whole grains and cereal feed, they consume Parmigiano cheese. Fewer than 200 farms have been certified to produce true Parma ham, and they are carefully monitored.
In order to savor prosciutto, it should be served at room temperature unless it has been incorporated into a pasta dish. Italians enjoy it simply served with a little sour cream rolled in the middle. The narrow rim of fat around each slice is essential to the flavor and should not be trimmed away.