Flavorful, versatile Prosciutto di Parma perfect for holiday recipes |

Flavorful, versatile Prosciutto di Parma perfect for holiday recipes

Flavorful, versatile Prosciutto di Parma perfect for holiday recipes

From Spain’s ethereal Jamón ibérico to Alto Adige’s smoky Speck, European artisan hams present a glorious mosaic of aromas, flavors and textures.

Among these fabulous traditions, Italy’s Prosciutto di Parma merits special attention.

With well-balanced, delicious flavors and tender texture, Prosciutto di Parma offers a versatile, affordable and irresistible delicacy that works particularly well with holiday recipes and wines. As with traditional wines, terroir — the combination of quality raw materials, distinctive microclimate and well-honed savoir-faire — shapes the ham’s unique charms.

“We start with what we call heavy pigs at 9 months old and a minimum of 150 kilos,” says Fabrizio Raimondi of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma at SD26, a modernist Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Translation: Prosciutto di Parma producers use pigs weighing at least 330 pounds.

Bred from three permitted species in the hills surrounding Parma in north-central Italy, the pigs gain weight gradually by feeding only on grains, cereals and whey from the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

After slaughter, experienced master salatores rub the pigs’ hefty haunches with sea salt before refrigerating the young hams in carefully controlled humidity and temperature. This ensures absorption of delicate saltiness without overwhelming inherent sweetness.

With excess salt removed, the hams transfer to the prosciuttifici , curing houses where the hams hang on racks. Then magic begins with dry-curing.

“We have to be patient and cure the hams with the air around Parma,” Raimondi says. “We are not so far from the sea, so the air arrives dry and mixes with sweet breezes from the Apennine Mountains.”

Aromatic air flowing through large, open windows caresses the hams to extract moisture and concentrate delicate nutty, sweet flavors within marvelous texture.

All hams cure for at least 12 months, but more flavorful specimens cure for as long as 36 months.

To ensure quality, experienced inspectors wielding needles made from porous horse bones pierce five critical spots on each curing ham. The inspectors rely on a well-honed sense of smell to recognize the moment of perfection.

Hams passing muster receive a five-pointed “ducal crown” brand with the word “Parma.” According to Raimondi, the brand guarantees authentic Prosciutto di Parma, a traditional Protected Designation of Origin” product with roots stretching to Roman times.

Following classic production techniques, today’s tasty hams still come from using only Parma pigs, salt, fresh air and patient curing. The resulting incomparable aromas, fetching rosy color and tender taste inspire creativity in modern culinary professionals, such as SD26 executive chef Matteo Bergamini.

“The ham’s very nice flavors remind me of my country,” says Bergamini, who was born in the town of Toscolano on Lake Garda. “We use Prosciutto di Parma every day to add salty and sweet flavors in nice balance.”

Bergamini slowly cooks Prosciutto di Parma “cracklings” to garnish lamb chops with mint couscous, black mission figs and fennel. Parma ham also complements Bergamini’s signature beef cheeks braised in red wine and served with onion marmalade.

Closer to home, for holiday appetizers, serve thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma with marinated vegetables. And please the crowd by pairing the accompanying recipe with:

2008 Cecchi, “Bonizio” Sangiovese di Maremma, Toscano, Italy (Luxury 16526; $9.99): Enticing, ripe plum and spice flavors balance deftly with bright acidity and soft tannins. Recommended .

2008 San Quirico, Chianti “Colli Senesi,” Italy (Luxury 16762; $14.99): Made from grapes grown on hillsides around the Renaissance town of San Gimignano, this tasty wine’s sweet black cherry, floral and spice aromas lead to pure fruit flavors. Uplifting acidity and sturdy, yet smooth tannins provide good balance. Highly recommended .

Parma Ham Pizza with Two Cheeses, Pear and Caramelized Onion

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, more for greasing pan
  • 2 cups thinly sliced onion
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 pound pizza dough
  • 1 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
  • 1 ripe pear, sliced
  • 2 ounces Prosciutto di Parma, cut into strips

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Over medium heat, cook the onions, stirring frequently until tender and browned. Stir in the honey. Spread the pizza dough on the baking sheet and sprinkle with the cheeses. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven; spread the onions over the cheeses; top with the pear slices and Parma ham; return to the oven for 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

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