Parma, the land of antipasto

Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Balsamico have been produced there for thousands of years


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By Carole Kotkin

Parma, in the province of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy is a region of remarkable culture and produces some of the best cuisine in the country. It is known as the land of antipasti.

The antipasto course in this region — mostly composed of prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Balsamico condiment — is a glorious summation of the dreams and resourcefulness of generations of great cooks:  a series of little dishes meant to go with fresh, young, lightly chilled wines and to give diners something to enjoy while they wait for more serious matters to come.

Recently, while visiting Parma and the surrounding provinces, I marveled at the fact that one can buy a product that has been made in the same way, in the same place, for a thousand years.   Today, the three qualify for the coveted DOP label (an acronym for Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) that guarantees that these products are specific to a geographic region.

Prosciutto di Parma - Listen to Paolo Tanara, president of the Consorzio, and more with Elke Fernandez

Prosciutto di Parma, which means "ham from Parma," has a supple, almost velvety texture, rosy color, and rich, sweet and salty flavor courtesy of the pigs that are raised in ten regions of central Northen Italy and slaughtered in the Parma region. The pigs are fed corn, barley and other cereals, and in a superb act of symbiosis -- the whey from the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The process of making Prosciutto di Parma, although fully modernized and mechanized, has not changed drastically for centuries. The Italian government protects the region by banning any industries with a high pollution risk. After the pigs are slaughtered, their hind legs are cured with coarse sea salt and they are hung in aging rooms with louvered windows, which channel the breezes that blow east from the Ligurian and Tuscan coasts around Langhirano, a small town south of Parma.

prosciutto paolo tanaraAs I saw on my visit to the Italofine processing facility, curing demands meticulous attention to detail, and rigorous consistency.”These elements are controlled by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma who maintains quality and uniformity through a rigorously enforced breeding and production process,” remarks Paolo Tanara, current president of the Consorzio. After aging, just as it's always been done, each prosciutto is poked with a porous horse-bone pick, which is then sniffed to ensure there is no internal spoilage.

Of the 8 million hams made in Parma by 200 commercial producers, about 700,000 are rejected and sold as ordinary prosciutti. Those that qualify as Prosciutto di Parma get stamped with a five-pointed crown containing the word "Parma" inside. By law, prosciutto di Parma must be aged at least 10 months, and even longer if being shipped to the United States. USDA authorities inspect the farms, slaughterhouses and production facilities twice a year to guarantee the prosciutto is safe for US consumption.

Everyone in Parma (and the rest of the world) eats prosciutto, sliced paper thin. They eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition to prosciutto being served in overlapping, folded-slices on an antipasto platter, or wrapped around bread sticks or melon, it is eaten in pasta and on pasta, in omelets and layered on sandwiches. The layer of creamy white fat that surrounds the pink, lean meat contributes flavor and texture to the experience. As a cooking ingredient, prosciutto can enhance pasta sauces or stuffings.


Parmigiano-Reggiano  - listen

Known as the king of cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made by craftspeople whose lives are bound to cheese-making, and is indelibly linked to the land and its tradition.

parmigiano-reggiano 15Other cheeses get sharper as they age; Parmigiano-Reggiano becomes mellower. Its unique texture is at once granular and creamy. “This cow's-milk cheese varies in taste and texture depending on the season in which it's made and on how long it is aged (typically two to three years).  Parmigiano-Reggiano must come from the flat lands and rolling hills that surround the towns of Parma and Reggio Emilia,” Giovanna Rosetti states  for Conzorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

Although many countries make something called Parmesan, nothing is quite like true Parmigiano-Reggiano from Reggio Emilia. The rules specify a mixture of whole morning milk and partially skimmed milk from the previous evening. The milk cooks in a hands-on multistage process to form the curd, which is then wrapped in cheesecloth and fitted into a fat cylindrical form big enough to make a 55- to 88-pound cheese,” continues Fernandez. Perforations in this form inscribe the familiar Parmigiano-Reggiano lettering in the surface, which emerges as the cheese ages and turns brownish yellow.

Before aging, the cheeses brine in heavily salted water for several weeks. In the warehouse-sized aging rooms, the salt distributes itself and the cheese develops its color and texture as it sits on a shelf. It takes two years to make good Parmigiano-Reggiano. Longer aging commands higher prices. After one year, inspectors from the Conzorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano come around to test every cheese, tapping all over the surface with a small hammer, listening for squishy thuds or hollow sounds that reveal a bad cheese. They might reject two out of 10 cheeses.

No other cheese is so thoroughly integrated into an entire cuisine like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Broken chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano add beauty to any antipasto platter or cheese tray and if you drizzle the cheese with  Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena it is heavenly. Most of us are familiar with Parmigiano-Reggiano grated over pasta or folded into risotto or polenta, it is equally delicious shaved over carpaccio or a salad, or crumbled into soup.

The region’s unique wines all pair very well with Reggiano-Parmigiano and Prosciutto di Parma, including a sparkling wine called Lambrusco, the tart, dry red wine’s frizzante (slightly fizzy) character cuts through the richness of the fat in most salumi and enhances the nutty character of the cheese.

Balsamic vinegar from Modena - listen

balsamico 18True balsamic vinegar—aceto balsamico tradizionale, balsamico for short—isn't really vinegar at all. It's a super-concentrated, intensely flavored condiment that is aged, sometimes more than a century, and costs hundreds of dollars for a 100ml bottle, a far cry from commercial, balsamic vinegar that can sell for as little as $3 a bottle.

That's why balsamico isn't poured, but rather dribbled out drop by drop. Great balsamico is a syrupy liquid the color of aged Madeira, which is not surprising given the aging process. Madeira turns brown and becomes more opaque as it ages for years in barrels. Balsamico starts with the juice of grapes, primarily Trebbiano, and is simmered to concentrate the flavors and caramelize the sugars. Once cooled, it ferments, then goes through acetification the same way vinegar does.

At the small Pedroni Balsamico company founded in 1862 near Modena, patriarch Italo Pedroni, explained, “The key to balsamico is the way it is aged—in a progression of smaller barrels of different types of wood, such as chestnut, cherry and mulberry. Each barrel imparts its own special quality. This aging process invests the vinegar with layers of flavor, just like wine. It is also sweet as well as sour, creating a balance that aficionados even drink in tiny quantities as an apéritif or digestif.” In Modena, vecchio (old) balsamico tradizionale must be at least 12 years old, extra vecchio at least 25.

A few drops on roast chicken or grilled meats, seafood, vegetables or even strawberries can raise the dish to new heights. "One drop is enough to blow up your mouth with flavor that will stay with you for five minutes," says Pedroni.

Helping nature transform these simple raw ingredients into magnificent statements about tradition, craft and love of food is an almost miraculous process.

But, as they say,”That’s Italian.”




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