And if it weren’t so expensive, pukka Parma ham would be more popular than bacon me thinks. This meat – from slowly air-dried salted legs of ham – seemingly melts in your mouth with a sweet salty tang and an unctuous, velvety texture.
Among the best are the long-matured hams of Parma and Friuli in Italy or Huelva and Salamanca in Spain. A leg of five-star Bellota Cinco Jotas ham made from acorn-fed, black-foot pigs in the mountains above Jabugo in Andalucia and cured for three years sells for up to R8000 — sliced, off the bone it costs as much as R1800 a kilo.
These hams are very simply cured — lightly salted, for no more than a few days, and then hung. If only it were so simple. For starters, this could be a rare case of where Italian beaurocracy is an aid rather than a hindrance.
There are strict rules governing the angle of the cut, the water content, the fat and blood levels for a ham that has been famous ever since the second century BC, when the Roman politician Cato described the process in a treatise on agriculture, saying that it produced long-lasting, delicious meat.
Firstly, trim the back legs of free- range, stress-free (multo importante) pork to the familiar lute shape, the great curve of the rump surrounding the shiny round knob of the femur. Mix a kilo of sea salt with a bit of ground pepper, rosemary, garlic, nutmeg and fennel seed. Gently rub the mixture into the exposed meat and around the bone head to draw moisture out of the ham.
Now the tricky part for home curing – you need to hang the ham at 3 degrees in 80 or 85 % humidity. Re-salt after three days and after two weeks wash off the salt and hang in drier air.
The important thing is the initial two weeks of maturation — temperature and humidity must be right, and there should be no draughts. After, allow air movement on warm dry days. If you start in the winter, as is traditional, then in the spring as the weather gets warmer, the ham needs a damper atmosphere, and then in summer you begin the drying.
After seven or eight months suet is wiped over the exposed meat to seal it, and then the hams become dormant (bacterial activity ends). They are hung in a dry cellar to age for as long as three years.
Parma and Wine
If you cant bear the wait, watch out for wine producer Oak Valley’s first release of parma-style ham from acorn-fed free range pigs.Some believe Parma’s typical nuttiness is from the acorn diet while others are sceptical as acorns are not available all year round.
Another possible source is from lactones (think coconut) found in fresh pork which are also reminiscent of peach and apricot. Lactones are also found in oak, particularly American and aging in toasted oak barrels gives wines and brandies a number of such notes.
Fino sherry is a great match with aged dried ham as both contain lactones while Parma is often matched with melon. However, I have found dried figs a much more exciting match particularly with dry sherry.
Meanwhile, foodies are going into kermit-like ecstasies over culatello (literally translating as 'little arse'). This is the pear-shaped piece from the heart of the ham, brined, air-cured, and considered by some as the height of porcine decadence.