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Cured Meat – Prosciutto di Parm

Wondering what’s in Prosciutto di Parma that costs an arm and leg? Check out all there is to know about this tasty Italian ham!

Hearty, meat-centric meals are the norm in Langhirano, a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and vineyards nestled in Emilia-Romagna.

Parma, particularly Langhirano, boasts a unique microclimate – a confluence of aromatic pine and chestnut forests, verdant valleys, and dry sea breezes. These elements combine to create an ideal environment for raising livestock, curing meat, and cultivating grapes for the region’s renowned Lambrusco wine.

But it’s more than just geography that elevates prosciutto di Parma. A symbiotic relationship exists between the region’s prosciutto and its other culinary star – Parmigiano Reggiano. Pigs destined for prosciutto di Parma are fed a diet enriched with the leftover whey from Parmesan cheese production. This imparts a signature nutty-sweet flavor that permeates each slice of cured meat.

Which Hams are Prosciutto di Parm?

For many years, getting high-quality prosciutto was a hit or miss for the uninitiated. Early purchases consisted of various brands packaged in plastic envelopes, often American-made. While affordability was the initial concern, factors like brand names, additives, and origin were overlooked. These early experiences resulted in disappointment – thickly sliced, overly salty, and lacking the true essence of prosciutto: mild, tender, aromatic, and slightly sweet.

Probably this is why the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma was born in 1963, with the aim to ensure quality and consumer confidence.

Operating under the European Union (EU) with support from the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) system, later absorbed by the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) regulations, the consortium safeguards Parma ham production. Similar to other PDO products, Parma ham adheres to strict regulations regarding sourcing and preparation within a designated geographic area. These regulations are enforced through a tracking system implemented during the slaughtering and aging process. For consumers, the five-point ducal crown branded on each ham signifies Parma-made authenticity. Prior to branding, inspectors meticulously examine each ham using a traditional horse bone needle. Their trained sense of smell detects spoilage and verifies sufficient aging.

While branding serves as a marketing tool, it also signifies a commitment to quality and consistency. Considering the simplicity of its ingredients – pork hindquarters and sea salt – the extensive standards governing Parma ham are remarkable. Regulations dictate everything from pig breed (Duroc, Large White, or Landrace) and diet to the amount of salt used, processing altitude, and curing time. Excessive salt eliminates the characteristic sweetness, while insufficient curing creates an overly moist product lacking the depth of flavor associated with proper aging. The production process is meticulous, requiring a minimum of one year from start to finish.

These measures don’t negate the quality of other cured hams. Italy boasts other PDO prosciuttos, such as the milder prosciutto di San Daniele, and Spain offers renowned varieties like jamón Ibérico de bellota. However, the Consorzio’s regulations ensure a baseline level of quality for consumers seeking authentic prosciutto di Parma.

How Prosciutto di Parm is made?

“Prosciutto di Parma is remarkably simple. Just pork, sea salt, air, and time.”

Giovanni Bianchi

Bianchi, the fourth-generation owner of this family-run facility, guides us through the aging process. Legs of pork are salted and rested in cool, humid conditions; then gradually dried and greased to prevent spoilage and dehydration. Finally, they spend a curing period in the vast cellar before packaging and sale

Who makes Prosciutto di Parm?

Quality variations exist within the PDO framework.

“Every producer adheres to the Consorzio’s procedures, but these are merely margins. The greatest distinctions lie in the raw materials.”

Giovanni Bianchi of Pio Tosini

Pio Tosini enforces stricter criteria than the baseline, rejecting legs that don’t meet their standards of size, meatiness, and fat coverage. A thick fat layer insulates the meat, promoting even drying and a desirable texture. Rejected legs are returned for replacements that meet Pio Tosini’s higher expectations.

Pio Tosini, a remaining bastion of tradition, adheres to a seasonal production halt during spring. Traditionally, all producers followed this practice due to hormonal changes in spring pigs affecting fat quality. Modern selective breeding minimizes these changes, allowing year-round production for most. However, Bianchi maintains a quality difference persists, albeit at the cost of lower volume.

This commitment to heritage sets Pio Tosini apart from larger contractors and corporations that entered the Parma region seeking PDO profits. “Economically challenging,” admits Paolo Tanara, co-owner of another family business, Giancarlo Tanara. “For many, prosciutto di Parma is just one product; minimum standards suffice for the label. For us, it’s a passion, sometimes pushing quality even higher.”

Industrialization has impacted not just production but the animals themselves. Breeders have focused on pig genetics and diet, potentially increasing water content in the meat. Bianchi notes that marbled meat was once the norm, but recent breeding prioritizes less intramuscular fat for consistency, which can lead to higher moisture retention. “Previously, prosciutto was ready in 10-12 months. Now, due to extra moisture, it takes 18-24 months for the same result.”

By exceeding the Consorzio minimum with extended aging, Pio Tosini sacrifices production speed for quality. Companies adhering solely to PDO regulations can market prosciutto in just one year. This shorter timeframe translates to less moisture evaporation, resulting in a heavier product delivered faster by larger companies. Smaller producers like Pio Tosini and Giancarlo Tanara, prioritizing tradition, experience longer turnaround times and increased costs.

Is the extra time worthwhile?

“Younger prosciutto is suitable for pasta and paninis, but less special for solo consumption.”


He describes a five-year-old forgotten prosciutto, “terrible-looking” yet perfect upon cutting. While unsafe to replicate at home, it demonstrates the meat’s resilience. Typically, an 18-24 month aged ham offers more enzymatic and bacterial activity than its year-old counterparts. Both are fatty, smooth, and sweet, but longer-cured ham reveals earthy, floral notes and a complex fermentation flavor.

This dedication from smaller producers allows for higher prices, but competition remains fierce against high-volume brands. Many smaller manufacturers are turning to international markets with growing appreciation for slow food and artisanal goods. The American market, with its proliferation of specialty food stores, offers promising opportunities.

“People in the United States increasingly value product nuances and history.”


In New York, the trend is evident. PDO prosciutto appears more frequently on menus, and high-end supermarkets offer multiple Parma ham brands. The Consorzio’s promotional efforts, including specialist recommendations, contribute to this growth.


  • Legs of pork are first salted and rested in cool, humid conditions.
  • Then, they are gradually dried and greased to prevent spoilage and moisture loss.
  • Finally, they undergo a lengthy curing process in the vast cellar before being packaged and sold.
  • PDO framework was created to ensure that Prosciutto di Parma hams meet minimum quality requirements but variations exist.
  • The longer a ham is cured the more it is valued.

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