Monday, February 13, 2012

Langhirano and a plate of Parma Ham

“Langhirano, Langhirano, Langhirano, let’s go to Langhirano” said Gigi as we pondered over a glass of wine on a Saturday evening, how we might usefully pass our time the following morning. It was a great idea. It certainly beat his other suggestions – too cold to go to the market, far too much snow to go walking the dog in the mountains.  Not everyone has heard of Langhirano. But immediately he said the name, I knew what he had in mind. Langhirano, otherwise known as the capitale del prosciutto, is the very epicentre of Italy’s love affair with prosciutto crudo (cured raw ham). True aficionados will make a point of only sourcing their ham from one of the many salumifici (cured meat producers) in the surrounding area. The ham produced in Langhirano epitomizes the principle of terroir – soil, climate, plant life and tradition interacting to produce something that is truly unique.

Italy makes over 100 different types of ham but it has to be said that Parma ham is the most famous. Other well known versions include San Daniele, the norcia hams of Umbria and Prosciutto Toscano. None of the above are necessarily the best, just the most widely exported and, arguably, successfully branded. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that all Italian hams, just like wine, are a close reflection of local territory.

Parma ham is made from the rear legs of Landrace or Duroc pigs. The hams are trimmed and treated to a slow salting process. The curing is completed by slow air drying, a process which takes at least 12 months. There are no artificial additives used in the production of Parma ham. In Italy the majority of hams are sold with the bone intact. Much of the ham that is exported is boned.

A good Parma ham should have a rosy pink flesh with a good balance of fat to lean meat. It should be sweet and tender albeit with a fairly dense texture. Most Italians, myself included, have serious misgivings about cooking with prosciutto crudo. The only exception that I can think of is saltimbocca alla Romana – although for that dish I wouldn’t use Parma ham specifically but another ham (arguably one from Lazio).One Italian food writer wrote that using Parma ham as an ingredient is a ‘crime against its personality’. I couldn’t agree more. Cooking Parma ham completely alters its character, taste and texture. Fresh Parma ham is subtle, delicate in flavour and melts in the mouth. Once cooked – apart from the fact that it becomes cooked ham – it loses its fragrance and character, the texture is transformed and it becomes ‘salty’. It is no coincidence that despite Italian culinary ingenuity, the best we’ve been able to come up with when it comes to Parma ham is to serve it fresh draped over slices of sweet melon or figs. They’re the perfect accompaniment and why, after all, would you want to tamper with perfection?

With the shopping taken care of, Gigi and I made our way into the centre of town. We figured we deserved a treat, after all our effort. The truth is, this is what we’d really come for. Langhirano’s a small town and everyone knows about the little trattoria in the main piazza. Needless to say, it specialises in the local ham and if you want to sample Parma ham at its very, very best, there’s arguably no better place in Italy. We ordered a plate of fresh ham served over slices of grilled polenta with mixed vegetables – along with a bottle of the local Lambrusco. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning.

Mixed grains, vegetable & Parma Ham salad
Insalata di cereali misti, verdure crude e prosciutto di Parma

Like I said, there’s no better vehicle for Parma ham than a couple of slices of sweet melon or a few well-ripened figs. But good figs and melon are hard to find in the heart of winter. So while you are waiting for those long summer days, there are options. A good ham does not like to be accompanied by excessive acidity. Therefore, do not serve it with acidic vegetables – never with tomatoes. Gardiniere vegetables, cooked in a little vinegar but preserved in oil are perfect. Porcini mushrooms also work well with Parma ham. For the following recipe suggestion, try to find a good quality sweet orange.

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

250g mixed grains including rice, spelt and pearl barley
2 medium sized sweet yellow peppers
4 small young courgettes
2 untreated oranges
12 slices of Parma ham
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Boil the mixed grains in salted water until cooked.  You can purchase bags that contain all three grains and have an equal cooking time which makes things much easier.  If you can’t find this, just use one of your favourite grains.  Once cooked drain, transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool completely. To make the salad, chop the peppers and courgette into small dice and add to the bowl.  Make a dressing by mixing together the juice and zest of one orange with the olive oil.  Add this to the bowl and stir everything together.  Check for seasoning and add salt & pepper to taste.  To serve, I like to peel and finely slice the oranges and arrange them on a serving plate. Place the salad on top and, finally, finish with several slices of Parma ham.