We three travelled to a rural area south of Parma with the gentle and descriptive name of Pastorella. The plant was surrounded by tall fences and security gates, evidence of the precious treasure within.
This was the plant of Leporati Prosciutti, maker of Prosciutto di Parma, located just south of the town of Langhirano where the most celebrated Parma hams are produced. The company was founded in 1969 by Nello Leporati and it remains a family business. Nello’s daughter was our tour guide. She was a charming hostess, patient with our Tarzan Italian and gracefully stretching her limited English to enlarge our understanding.
We donned hairnets and lab coats in order to enter the facility. We were briefly shown the cutting room, where incoming fresh hams were processed. In my last post, I alluded to the special diet necessary for a pig to be selected for Prosciutto di Parma. In addition to a diet of parmigiano whey and rinds, the pigs must be raised in Parma or Lombardy and must weigh 330 to 400 lbs, which is a might big pig indeed. The pigs are slaughtered elsewhere and only the legs are delivered to the plant. There they are then trimmed and salted and delivered on trays to a refrigerated room. For the most part, the skin is left intact. It is a natural protectant and keeps the ham from drying too fast. The ideal fresh leg weighs about 26 lbs.
When we were there, work had ceased in the cutting room. Seems a conflict had arisen between the tag on an individual leg and the records of its origin. Until the heritage of the pork could be properly established, the process could not proceed. Any ham “not worth its salt” was returned to the slaughterhouse. To be Prosciutto di Parma, the hams may only be produced in the area of Parma province south of the Via Emilia at an altitude not greater than 900 meters.
The hams rest for about a week after the first salting. Then they are brushed and salted again for a second week. After being brushed again they are hung from hooks and placed in a storage room at about 68 degrees F for 7 months, at a relative humidity of about 76%.
In the photo at left, hams aged 7 months are prepared for washing.
At right, the hams are spray washed in tepid water.
After washing, the fleshy surface of the ham is trimmed and the only bone left exposed is the ball of the hip joint. The remainder of the exposed muscle is smeared with a mix of pork fat, salt, ground pepper and rice flour. This protects the quality of the flesh and keeps it from drying out.
The hams are then returned to the aging room for an additional 10 to 12 months before they are offered for sale. Total processing time from butchering to sale is therefore 18 to 20 months. The Leporati plant has an annual capacity of 90,000 hams per year, meaning they have about 180,000 hams hanging at any given time.
We can testify to that. I think we saw them all.
As a reward for keeping our mitts off the goods, our hostess sat us down to a selection of the finest ham Leporati had to offer, washed down with a lovely local wine. The ham has a much less salty taste than other hams, even other Italian prosciutti, which enables a sweetness of flavor and a rich aroma to come through.
Sally and Lisa nibbled gamely.
We were soon back in the car and on to our next adventure involving barrels and barrels of goodness.
Photo credits: Lisa Nori