Ham and cheese are a winning combination. And when the ham is Prosciutto de Parma and the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano the combination is sublime, Mary Curry explains
A light lunch of ham and cheese
The traffic had been heavy and Andrea was running late, she had popped round with some shopping and had apologised for arriving at lunchtime.
It was no problem I assured her as it was a light lunch – ham, cheese and fruit. ‘What cheese?’ she asked, I told her ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ her sigh of longing must have been heard at the end of the road. I said she could stay, but no, she had to get home.
Evidently Parmigiano Reggiano is one of her all-time favourite cheeses. Like us she loves cutting off chunks and nibbling away at them, preferably with a glass of a Lambrusco, or something red, and equally delicious in the other hand!
She didn’t enquire about the ham which was probably just as well for I happened to know that she was almost prepared to kill for a slice or two of Parma Ham. She had lived in Italy for a short time, strangely enough in the region where the ham and cheese is produced, and was seriously addicted not just to the cheese but also to the ham’s rich, succulent flavour.
Parmigiano Reggiano – The King of Cheese
Genuine Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can only be made in the area of Italy in the Po Valley between the Rivers Po and Reno and the foothills of the Apennine mountains, wherein lie the historic and wonderful cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua.
Cheese with a history
It’s one of the oldest of cheeses, probably dating back to 13th century monks from Parma who wished to preserve excess milk from the cows that grazed, as cows still do today, on the rich pastures. The fame of the cheese spread rapidly – there’s even mention of it in documents dated 1254 in far-away Genoa; to say nothing of being immortalised in the 14th century by Giovanni Boccaccio in his book The Decameron where he refers to ‘a mountain, all of grated parmesan’ – our idea of heaven.
A PDO cheese
More recently, since 1996 to be precise, it received another accolade when it was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status from the European Community.
To earn that status Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made in that specific designated area and only local raw milk, calf’s rennet and salt. No additives or preservatives are allowed other than the natural bacteria that comes from the soil and grass and which help age the cheese.
Consequently the cheese is easy to digest, contains very little fat and much to our delight is considered to be a ‘natural, nutritional supplement’.
600 litres of milk are needed for a 38kg cheese. The process starts with milk from the previous evening’s milking which has been left overnight, to which the next morning’s milk is added. The two are mixed together and some of the cream skimmed off, before a starter of fermenting whey is added.
The milk is then heated to 33˚C and rennet added. The resulting curd is broken into small pieces prior to being heated and put into a special circular mould for pressing and turning, and left to set. It is then soaked in a strong saline solution for some 20 – 25 days before being removed to shelves where the cheese is left to mature and harden for at least 12 months, though sometimes for as long as 30 months.
After that the cheeses which have passed the strict regulations are branded with the iconic words ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’, and are ready to be sold and enjoyed.
A tour worth taking
It is well worth touring one of the processing plants that produces Parmigiano Reggiano, though it has to be said that when a friend and I had taken the tour we found the smell in one or two of the rooms rather overpowering.
But we persevered and were glad we did, we found the tour, which takes about two hours fascinating. And we really appreciated the tasting experience at the end of the visit.
And a tasting to enjoy
At 12-18 months the cheese has a crumbly, lighter, not too strong a flavour, reminiscent, for some people, of tangy yogurt and fresh fruit; at 22-24 months it has a tantalising grainy texture, slightly salty and with more complex flavours of a beef broth and dried fruit; whilst at 30-36 months the cheese is crumbly and even more salty, and grainy with much more pronounced cheese crystals plus notes of spice, toasted nuts, and a rich umami beef broth taste.
My favourite is the more mature cheese, but they are all so good we really don’t mind which King of Cheese makes its appearance on our cheese board they are all welcome.
Parma Ham – The King of Ham
Ham it might be, but Parma Ham is also extra special. Who could mistake that sublime rich, sweet and salty flavour as anything else. If Parmigiano Reggiano is the King of Cheese, Prosciutto de Parma, also known as Parma Ham, is the King of Ham.
You might have been eating it in a restaurant and not quite realised what you were eating as it often appears on a menu simply as ‘prosciutto’. Prosciutto basically means ham, and comes from the Latin word perexsuctum, meaning dried.
Ham appreciated by the Romans
But Prosciutto de Parma is in a league of its own. It has been in existence since Roman times and in 100 BC Cato the ‘Censor’ (Elder) was referring to the fine flavour of the air cured ham from the Parma region of Italy.
Whilst in 5 BC salted preserved pork legs were being traded throughout Italy and indeed further afield. It has been highly prized and in demand ever since.
A PDO Ham
Parma Ham too is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product. It has to be produced and cured in the hills around Parma in Italy’s beautiful Emilia Romagna region. Believe it or not but even the pre-sliced packets we buy in UK shops has to have come from the region too.
Pork, salt, air and time
The ingredients are meat from specially bred Italian pigs, plus salt and air. Absolutely no additives are allowed. It is the unique atmospheric conditions of the area that have made it possible to produce these quality hams but one other final, crucial, ingredient is needed – time!
A method centuries old
The method of curing the pork today is not dissimilar to that used centuries ago.
Fresh legs of pork each weighing about 15kg are sent to the processing plant where some of the skin and fat is removed to give the ham its iconic “chicken drumstick” shape.
Then salting by a skilled salt master (a maestro salatore) takes place; followed by a period of refrigeration – usually about one week. A second layer of salt is then applied and left to be absorbed by the meat for 15 – 18 days to cure the meat. The salting process is absolutely crucial as salt is the only preservative used and helps to give the ham its wonderful flavour.
The hams are then hung in refrigerated, humidity controlled, rooms for between 60 and 90 days before being washed with warm water and any excess salt or impurities removed. The next stage is to hang them on frames in well ventilated rooms for about three months after which the exposed surfaces are rubbed and softened with minced pork fat and seasoning. The hams are then hung in dark rooms for between 12 and 30 months to continue curing.
Now comes the crucial test. An inspector pierces each ham at five specific points with a special bone needle, which he smells after each puncturing. If it is up to the required standard the ham is branded with the official mark of quality – the iconic five-pointed ducal crown, and the producer’s identification code. It can now be sold as ‘Prosciutto de Parma’, ie Parma Ham.
Its flavour will be rich, sweet and salty with a white or rosy succulent layer of fat; and as the ham ages it will take on the deeper, meaty flavour which singles it out as the King of Ham.
On the Table: Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma Ham
Whilst the cheese goes well with many meat dishes, I think it best simply grated over pasta or in a risotto, shaved over fruit or a salad – or even as an addition to soup. I save up the rinds and add them to my homemade soups – it gives them a special unique flavour that baffles guests.
For people like Andrea and me no cheese board is complete without a generous chunk, but make sure the cheese is served at room temperature. If it is a really mature cheese try serving it with honey and dried fruit! Truly scrummy.
I do cook with Parma Ham from time to time – wrapped round meat it gives the meat an added flavour – but on the whole I would much rather eat prettily displayed wafer thin slices of fresh Parma Ham from a cheese board along with chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano, with maybe a bunch of grapes for garnish.
However, the following recipes are all tasty and easy to make.
One favourite recipe of mine involves both Parma ham, grated Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh asparagus.
Asparagus with Parma Ham and Parmigiano Reggiano
1. Prepare the asparagus spears as normal for cooking; par-cook them for a minute or two depending on thickness and let them cool.
2. For every two spears use about half a slice of the ham and wrap it round and down the spears. I like to cover part of the delicate tips.
3. Mix the grated cheese with a generous knob of butter and dot the cheesy, buttery mix over the asparagus, and especially the tips; bake in a hot oven for a few minutes .
4. Serve with some fresh bread to mop up the yummy buttery juices.
Parmigiano Reggiano Baked Fennel and Leeks
Both fennel and leeks are hearty vegetables that hold their texture well in a baked gratin. This dish is also best served with crusty bread to soak up the juices. Serves 4
- 500g leeks, washed and trimmed
- 3 fennel bulbs, quartered lengthways
- 50g unsalted butter
- 50ml water
- 125ml dry white wine
- 200ml double cream
- 100g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 200 ˚C, fan oven 180˚C, gas mark 6.
- Boil the fennel in a little salted water until tender, approx. five mins. Drain well, spread out in a baking dish. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with 25g of the Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Put the butter, water and leeks into a pan and stew with the lid on until soft, approx. five minutes. Remove the lid, add the white wine and turn up the heat and boil until the wine has reduced by 2/3. Add the cream, nutmeg and 25g of Parmigiano Reggiano. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for three minutes and pour over the fennel.
- Sprinkle with the remaining 25g cheese and bake for 20 minutes, or until nicely browned and bubbling. Serve with good bread to soak up the juices.
Recipe courtesy: Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano
Fennel and Prosciutto di Parma Pasta Bake
The aromatic anise flavour of the fennel mixed with savoury taste of Parma Ham complement each other in this simple dish. Serves 4
- 2 large fennel (approx. 700g) trimmed, and diced (save fronds for garnishing)
- 80g unsalted butter
- 2 tsp fennel seeds
- 45g plain flour
- 100ml dry white wine
- 450ml whole milk
- 250g dry tagliatelle (preferably the all’ Uovo version – made with egg), lightly broken by gently crushing in your hand
- 80g Parma Ham, thinly sliced
- 40g Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated
- Sea Salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Melt 35g of butter in a pan, add four tbsp of water, the diced fennel, the fennel seeds and salt & pepper, braise with the lid on for approx. 10 mins until tender.
- Meanwhile make the white sauce – melt 45g of butter and add the flour. Mix together to form a roux and cook on a low heat for three mins, stirring continuously.
- Add the wine and work into the roux, ensuring it stays smooth.
- Add the milk in five stages, each time stirring into the roux and ensuring there are no lumps before adding more.
- Once all the milk is incorporated, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the fennel and continue cooking over a low heat.
- Cook the pasta for half the time recommended on the packet in salted water. Drain, but reserve a mug of the pasta water.
- Add the pasta to the white sauce and fennel mix.
- Tear the slices of Parma Ham into a few strips and fold into the mix.
- Gradually add enough of the pasta water to loosen the mixture – about 160g. This is needed as the pasta will soak up more liquid and some will evaporate.
- Transfer to the baking dish and sprinkle with Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Bake at 200˚C, fan oven 180˚C, gas mark 6, for approx. 15 mins, until golden brown on top. Garnish with finely chopped fennel fronds if using.
- Serve with green salad.
Recipe courtesy: Consortium of Parma Ham.
Parmigiano Regianno should be obtainable at any good deli, cheese shop or supermarket but should you have difficulties in getting genuine Parma Ham there are specialist shops that will supply you mail order.
My Parma Ham delivery came beautifully prepared and wrapped from Antonio’s Delicatessen, Lewisham: facebook.com/italianfoodlondon/
Parma Ham: prosciuttodiparma.com/en/home-page/
Parmigiano Reggiano: parmigianoreggiano.com