Making the cured meat treat that is Prosciutto is a simple matter of pig, salt and time. That’s pretty much it. And of course, there’s also much more to it, especially for the resulting product to earn the Protected Designation of Original (DOP) label.
As the third stop on my Food Experiences day trip from Bologna (run by Times of Italy/Italian Days), we went to Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco in Savignano sul Panaro, near Modena. They produce a DOP prosciutto that is identical in almost every aspect to the famed Prosciutto di Parma, except it’s made in Modena, so must be called Prosciutto di Modena.
The tour company’s owner, Alessandro, acted as our guide for the day, and explained the prosciutto-making process to us while we toured the facility.
Prosciutto, like Parmigiana-Reggiano, is an ancient food, in this case known to have produced by the Romans. The Romans were limited as to when they could make it, however, since when the meat is fresh, it must stay cold or it will spoil. Once the preservation process takes hold, it can tolerate warmer weather. So the Romans made their prosciutto in January, as it would be well preserved before spring came.
Now, of course, refrigeration means they can start the process any time. And since the meat needs to age for a year or so, it’s a process they want to keep going as frequently as possible.
The first step of the process is to take the thigh of the pig and massage it with salt. Lots and lots of salt. The meat then stays in a cooler for about two months (above right), until all the blood drains. (Sorry, the process — and the smell — is not for the faint of heart or vegetarians!)
After rinsing the residual salt, the ham rests for a couple of months as the salt does its work. Then another rinse to remove excess salt, some preventative “greasing” (the exposed end of the thigh, which might be vulnerable to bacteria, is sealed with a mixture of lard, salt and rice powder), and then the prosciutti are hung to dry and age in a dark attic-like room, with open air circulating. The process can take up to 18 months, as the exterior color changes from pink to something more, well, leathery.
And while the process may sound simple, it’s very tricky — if the temperature is too warm at the beginning, the meat spoils; too cold and it doesn’t absorb enough salt. During the drying and aging, humidity must be just right so the salt fully and evenly penetrates the meat.
This Prosciuttificio not only produces and sells their own prosciutto di Modena, they also produce and age prosciutto for private individuals, such as families who live in the country who might slaughter a pig or two in the fall. In addition, they process and age meat destined to be sold in other countries, prosciutto which can’t be labeled DOP because it’s made from pigs from those countries. When we looked at the product drying, the DOP prosciutti were larger, heavier and plumper; the “foreign” prosciutti were smaller and flatter, with a larger, diamond-shaped exposed surface.
After the end of the aging process (which lasts at least one year), the hams have lost more than 25% of their initial weight and are ready for judging. Just like with Parmigiano-Reggiano, a tester from the Consorzio comes out to grade the final product. Instead of using a mallet to “sound” the ham, they use a horse-bone needle which absorbs smells, and is inserted into the ham to determine if it has the proper characteristics for the DOP label. If it does, the DOP logo will be fire-branded onto the leg, joining other marks indicating origin of the meat, the processor and the date when the curing began.