Here is a brief description of the main Parma Ham production phases.
1. Selection and trimming of raw material
Fresh pork legs come from the certified suppliers (slaughterhouses) and are originated from the Italian regions acknowledged by the PDO (Protected designation of Origin) Regulation. Each leg is inspected by the skilled staff in order to check for the presence of any defect or non-conformity which would cause the return of the leg to the supplier. To do this it is necessary to perform trimming, which is a partial fat and skin removal to give a leg its characteristic "rounded" shape.
Salting is performed manually by a highly skilled operator and consists of two phases. The first one lasts for 7 days. At the end of this period the leg is de-salted and then salted once again with the dry sea salt (as in the first phase). 19 days after the first salting was performed, the salt is completely removed from the leg.
After the residuals of the salt being removed, Ham is stored for a period of 80 to 120 days in the so called 'resting cells'. During this phase Ham has to dry slowly to avoid an excessive dehydration of the surface. The aim of this phase it to allow the absorbed salt penetrate deeply and evenly into the muscular mass.
4. Final trimming, washing and drying
Towards the end of the resting period Ham undergoes a further trimming, when any projecting bones are being cut off to give a Ham its typical shape. Then Ham is washed to remove any eventual salt crystals from the surface so that the skin looks clean and polished. Washing is followed by a drying phase to remove the water residues present on the surface. In this phase Ham is placed in the so called 'dryer cell' with a gradually ventilated environment.
5. Initial curing, sugnatura (fat coating) and final curing
During the salting and the resting phases Ham remains in the cells at a temperature between +1 and +5°C. During the initial and the final curing Ham's drying continues at higher temperatures – from +15 up to +20°C during the last months. Around the 6th month from the beginning of the production process, the exposed meat of the leg is coated with 'sugna', a mixture of pork fat, rice flour, salt and ground pepper. This operation is carried out manually on each Ham in order to soften the surface muscular layers to prevent an excessively rapid drying and to allow a further gradual dehydration of the product core. 'Sugna' is not an ingredient but a coadjuvant, which is completely natural and preservative-free. After that Ham is placed in huge rooms which are characterized by the presence of the opposing windows which when open allow Ham to get dry slowly developing an intense aroma.
6. Evaluating and branding
At the end of the curing process Ham’s quality is verified by means of an olfactory test. In this phase Ham is pierced in several points by a traditional tool called ‘tasto’, which is able to absorb the internal flavours of the product. Ham is smelt by the skilled experts which are able to identify and assess the product aromatic characteristics and hence the correct production process as well as the typical sweetness of the Ham. Hams are branded after reaching 12 months for Parma Ham and 13 months for San Daniele Ham. Based on the product characteristics and the client’s requirements the curing can last for a longer period, up to 20/24 months from the beginning of the production process.