Why is Prosciutto Made in Parma?

From Cook's Illustrated | September/October 2014

What is it about this particular region of Italy that lends itself to making the most famous variety of prosciutto?

Italians have been making prosciutto for a very long time. As early as 100 BC, the Roman statesman Cato wrote about the impressive flavor of the air-cured ham around Parma. This city in Emilia-Romagna at the top of Italy’s boot is still at it, making Italy’s most famous version, Prosciutto di Parma, under the eye of an official consortium that sears Parma’s five-pointed crown brand onto every approved ham. Next most renowned: Prosciutto di San Daniele, from the Friuli region in Italy’s northeast, with its own consortium and brand shaped like a leg of ham. Both are designated “PDO” by the European Union—Protected Denomination of Origin—meaning that they are exceptional regional products, with exclusive rights to their particular names.

Why these regions of Italy? Geography. Prosciutto crudo (“raw ham”), as it’s called in Italian, is never smoked or cooked. Before technology came to the rescue in the 20th century, curing depended on a specific climate. The Italian prosciutto consortiums offer poetic explanations of mountain air mixing with briny Adriatic breezes, but this has scientific soundness: Too hot or humid and the meat spoils; too cold or dry and it can’t absorb salt and won’t cure to the right flavor and texture.

Prosciutto-making always followed the seasons: After slaughtering pigs late in the fall, workers salted and hung the legs to “air-cure” exposed to cool winter, fluctuating spring, warm summer, and back to cooler fall. These days, manufacturers as far flung as our top-ranked domestic brand, Volpi in Missouri, and our runner-up, Del Duca in Rhode Island, use a series of climate-controlled chambers designed to replicate those northern-Italian seasons. (Even in Italy, technology takes over when Mother Nature won’t cooperate.) As they cure, the prosciutto legs, hung up on rolling racks, are moved through each chamber for the appropriate length of those ideal Italian seasons, which means authentic-style production can now continue year-round.

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