Tony Gemignani talks prosciutto

prosciutto dryingThe best prosciutto on the market is not necessarily prosciutto di Parma, although it is one of the top ranked. It comes down to personal preference. The attention to detail, care and tradition that goes into making prosciutto di Parma are just some of the reasons why it is considered above the rest.

On my latest trip to Italy for the Campionato Mondiale della Pizza in Parma, I had the privilege of visiting a factory where they produce prosciutto di Parma. First and foremost, the production of prosciutto starts with the raising of the pigs. Each pig raised for prosciutto is a special breed that is born, raised and slaughtered in the region of Parma. The food each pig is fed is even grown in that same region. Unlike other pigs raised for other cuts of meat, pigs raised for prosciutto must reach the age of at least nine months old. Once slaughtered, the legs are taken to the factories in which each piece is carefully inspected. If it does not meet the standards of each factory they are sent back.

Once selected, the cuts of meat are cleaned, trimmed and salted. The trimmings off each leg of prosciutto are actually used to make Fellino salame in the nearby town of Fellino. After the legs are cleaned and salted, they are left to slowly dry in a refrigerated room for a period of time. After this set time, in which some of the moisture will have started to disappear due to the salting and drying, they are cleaned again and re-salted. Once more, they are left to dry and the exposed portion of meat near the bone is massaged and covered by hand with a mixture of lard and salt.

Each leg of prosciutto is hung in a refrigerated room on metal racks. As the end of the curing process nears, the legs are transferred and hung in a room that is not quite as cold with less air and light. The factories themselves are located right at the base of a mountain in a valley in which real prosciutto di Parma cannot be made above 900 meters. The weather surrounding these factories is perfect for the production of prosciutto in that the air, during certain times of the year, has nearly perfect moisture content. Long, thin, vertical windows around the perimeter of each factory can be opened and the prosciutto dries naturally without the aid of machinery.

The Consortium (the group in charge of ensuring authenticity and quality control) checks each leg of prosciutto individually. The master, who has been specially trained to detect the right sounds, smells and textures of true prosciutto, goes around to each factory and tests each individual leg of prosciutto. The tool he uses to aid him in testing the meat is a surprising one — a horse bone. He inserts this bone at five different points and then smells the bone each time. Based off the smell and physically touching each leg he can then tell if the prosciutto is ready to be sold and exported. If they are cleared and deemed suitable, they are fire branded with specific symbols and then prepared to be sold. By law, each leg of prosciutto must be cured for at least a year after the initial salting and some are cured for as long as three years.

Every time a leg of prosciutto is sliced at any one of my restaurants, I appreciate the long process it has undergone before reaching the customer’s table. The tradition surrounding prosciutto di Parma is a long one and it is from this tradition that its quality is ensured. Respecting the ingredients you use daily is but one step in respecting your craft. ubr />

Tony GemignaniRESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento. Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail jwhite@pizzatoday.com and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.