In my last column, where I talked about the virtues of mostarda, I may have mentioned that it accompanies, among other things, that oh-so-wonderful Italian product, Parma ham. These are wafer-thin slices of superb tasting air-dried ham, which is still made traditionally in the area around Parma. Other air-dried hams exist in Europe and North America, but none matches the fragrance and delicate flavour of this one. The Italians are very proud of Prosciutto Di Parma (pronounced “Proshutto”), so much so that the product is now protected by law. It can be produced only around Parma, a small northern town in the Emilia Romagna region. The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, established in 1963 to protect and promote Parma ham, today includes more than 200 producers. It ensures that the traditional production methods are followed to guarantee a consistently high quality product.
Four natural ingredients—and nothing else—are necessary to make Prosciutto
di Parma: Italian pigs, salt, air and time. Genuine Parma ham is characteristic because of its total lack of preservatives and any other dubious substances often associated with modern ham production. The secret of Parma ham’s delicious, sweet flavour begins with a careful and accurate selection of the raw materials: the pigs. The feeding of the swine and the breeding techniques are also regulated to ensure a heavy pig in an excellent state of health and a suitable quality standard. Pigs are huge, around 170kg. They are fed a rich diet of maize, barley, soya and the whey of Parmesan cheese, which is made in the region. Each leg weighs approximately 13-14kg. When ready, this shrinks to 10kg. The hams are aged for one to two years. During this process, they are initially salted, then rested, air-dried and finally aged in special cellars. The humidity and temperature vary at each stage in order to ensure the ham cures correctly, absorbing salt and losing water. All producers of Prosciutto di Parma share one goal: to cure a leg of pork with an absolute minimum of salt in order to keep the meat as sweet-tasting and supple as possible.
Wafer thin: All it takes are four ingredients.
Parma ham is low in cholesterol, high in protein and additive-free. During the curing process, proteins are mostly cracked and predigested by enzymes, creating free amino acids. This means Parma ham is very easy to digest.
The best way to eat Parma ham is either sliced very thin, with crusty white bread; with slices of ripe melon, with ripe figs or mostarda, with pepper, with other salami on a platter, wrapped around stalks of asparagus or grissini, with pasta, or with veal or chicken in a dish known as saltimbocca.
4 thin veal escalopes or chicken breasts
8 fresh sage leaves or 2 tsp dried sage
4 thin slices of Parma ham
½ cup flour for dusting
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
4 tbsp white wine
4 tbsp chicken stock
4 tbsp Marsala or sweet sherry
Salt and pepper
Place the veal or chicken on cling film. Add another layer of cling film on top. Using a meat mallet or rolling pin, beat gently until it is at least double in size and very thin. Remove cling film and repeat with all the veal or chicken. Season each one with salt and pepper and lay two fresh sage leaves on each one, followed by a slice of Parma ham. Dust lightly with flour and press down again with a rolling pin. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan and fry the escalope or the chicken breast until golden brown. This will take no more than four minutes. Remove to a warm serving dish. Add the wine stock and Marsala to the pan and bring to boil, stirring in all the bits from the pan. When the sauce is reduced by half, season with salt and pepper and quickly pour over the veal or chicken breast. Serve at once, garnished with sage.
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