Prosciutto di Parma: History, Information, Interesting Facts

Prosciutto di Parma: storia, informazioni, curiosità


Speaking about Prosciutto of Parma is like taking a dive into history, exploring a time past that, however far, still has a great influence on what is possible to taste today. Let’s find out the origins of this ham, the charm of its places, how it’s produced and a great number of interesting facts. Let’s meet the ‘Consorzio’, the association of producers defending the tradition of one of the most famous Italian specialties in the world.

Prosciutto di Parma DOP, the sweet Italian ham famous in the world (crt-01)


What is prosciutto crudo?

Although many may already know what Parma ham (‘Prosciutto di Parma’) is, it may be not so obvious to many others, especially to all the ‘food lovers’ who don’t live in Italy. As it’s easy to understand from the name itself, it’s a type of ham from the province of Parma, the Italian city located in the Emilia-Romagna Region.
This delight for the palate is heir to a millenary tradition involving many ancient peoples, all of them in need of a kind of food that could be preserved over time without going bad. Treating pork meat with salt was one of the most appetizing solutions to this important requirement, giving birth to a technique destined to be improved during the centuries.

What is prosciutto? (crt-01, img-09) What is prosciutto? (crt-01, img-09)

Parma ham, as we know it today, is the final result of the evolution of this technique: it consists of the back leg of particular breeds of pigs, properly treated and matured thanks to the skill of expert craftsmen. A specialty with a sweet and delicate flavor that, despite being the perfect ingredient for many exquisite recipes, certainly gives its best when eaten alone.

‘Scalere’ for the Prosciutto di Parma DOP (crt-01) ‘Scalere’ for the Prosciutto di Parma DOP (crt-01)



Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01)

This article is the fruit of the collaboration between WebFoodCulture and the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.


The production area of Prosciutto di Parma.

The true Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) is produced in a very small area located in the province of Parma (Emilia-Romagna Region): it’s bordered to the north by the Via Emilia, to the east by the Enza river and to the west by the torrent Stirone. Many of the manufacturing companies are based in the town of Langhirano.


The history of Prosciutto di Parma.

Prosciutto di Parma: Emperor Augustus (cc-01)

The earliest evidence of the production of ​​a specialty similar to what we now call ‘prosciutto’ in the Parma area date back to the Etruscan period. At that time, the populations settled in the Padan territories used a method involving the use of salt to preserve pork meat. The result was a kind of food not only appetizing but also extremely practical, Prosciutto di Parma: Etruscan painting (img-04) given the extreme difficulty that the preservation of aliments once entailed. It’s therefore not surprising that it was much appreciated by both the Greeks and the Romans: the latter called the ancestor of ham ‘perna’ if it was made with the thigh of the pig, or ‘petaso’ if it was made with the shoulder (*1). When the Empire fell, it was the people of the Lombards who perpetuated the tradition.

Prosciutto di Parma: Pork meat, from Tacuino Sanitatis, XIV Cen.(img-05)

During the Middle Ages, the ‘beccai’ guild took care of meat processing in the Parma area. In 1459 the ‘lardaioli’ guild, specialized in the treatment of pigs, was born. Many testimonials confirm the great success of Parma ham on the tables of the noble Renaissance families.
In the following centuries, the celebrity of this specialty further increased. Two years are particularly important in its history: 1963, when the Consortium was founded, and 1996 when the Protected Designation of Origin was assigned.

*1: One of the most famous Roman streets, via Panisperna, derives its name from the combination of two Latin words: ‘panis’ (bread) and ‘perna’ (ham/prosciutto).


Romans write about the ‘ham ancestor’.

Many testimonies about the origin of prosciutto have reached us thanks to famous Roman writers. Among them Cato the Censor (160 BC), who in his book ‘De Agri Cultura’ explains how to preserve pork thighs using salt, and Varrone (37 BC), who in the ‘De Re Rustica’ celebrates the great skill of the Gauls in treating pork meat (*1).


Prosciutto for the Roman legions.

Ancient Romans considered the ancestor of ‘prosciutto’ particularly suitable for feeding their legions. This food, in fact, did not require cooking, allowing their armies great mobility, at the same guaranteeing the correct nutritional intake: both elements of fundamental importance in the campaigns of conquest.


Hannibal eats raw ham.

Prosciutto di Parma: Hannibal in Italy (cc-04)

It is said (*1) that Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general, during the campaign of conquest of Italy, after defeating the Roman army in the battle of Trebbia (218 BC), was joyfully greeted by the citizens of Parma. As a sign of respect, they offered him their most precious food: salted pork thigh. This specialty can be considered the true ancestor of Italian ham (‘prosciutto’).

*1: This anecdote is usually attributed to ‘John B. Dancer’, a pseudonym often used by Giovanni Ballarini, historian of gastronomy.

Prosciutto di Parma: Pliny the Elder about pork meat (img-03)

(Pliny the Elder)

Prosciutto di Parma: The right pigs for Prosciutto di Parma (cc-03) Prosciutto di Parma: The right pigs for Prosciutto di Parma (cc-03)


Prosciutto meat.

Not all pigs are suitable for producing Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham): those used by the traditional producers of the Consortium must belong to the Large White Landrance or Duroc breeds. The animals must necessarily be fed with quality foods, such as barley, maize and whey coming from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Once these pigs have reached at least 9 months of age and a weight of about 160kg, they are finally considered suitable for butchery, beginning the steps needed to make one of the most famous hams in the world.

Prosciutto di Parma: The origins of the name ‘prosciutto’. Prosciutto di Parma: The origins of the name ‘prosciutto’.


The origins of the name ‘prosciutto’.

Although there is no certainty about it, it’s more than likely that the Italian name ‘prosciutto’ derives from the combination of two Latin words: the particle ‘pro’ (‘prae’, ‘before’) and ‘exsuctum’ (past participle of the Latin verb ‘exsugere’, whose translation is ‘to suck’). This combination would indicate the loss of a good percentage of water caused by the use of salt in the preparation of ham and by the seasoning.


The Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01) In 1996 the European Union assigned to Prosciutto di Parma the Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O./D.O.P.): thus recognizing the particular value of this product and its indissoluble bond with the territory of origin.
The PDO implies the legal protection of this ham under the aegis of the Community: to keep this right, the prosciutto must necessarily meet certain requirements, first of all, the geographical origin (*1), listed in a product specification document.

*1: The entire production process must take place in the ‘typical area’: a specific, well-delimited place, characterized by particular human and natural factors (such as the mastery of local artisans and the climate).

Prosciutto di Parma: food pairings (crt-01) Prosciutto di Parma: food pairings (crt-01)


Prosciutto: how to eat.

There are many types of food with which Prosciutto di Parma ham can be successfully paired. Here follow some of the best choices:
Vegetables: both raw and cooked.
Cheeses: ricotta, stracchino, robiola, mozzarella, but also provolone and montasio.
Fruit: sweet fruits. The pairing with melon is very famous. The pairing with figs is just exquisite.

The nutritional values of Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01) The nutritional values of Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01)


Nutritional values.

One of the main characteristics of Parma ham is the total absence of preservatives and additives. This natural product contains:
Vitamins: vitamin B (B1, B2), vitamin E.
Minerals: sodium, phosphorus, potassium, iron.
Fats (mainly unsaturated).
Furthermore, there are no lactose, gluten, nitrates, nitrites and polyphosphates.


Gioacchino Rossini and Prosciutto di Parma.

It’s no mystery that the famous Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini, who lived in the first half of the XIX Century and was the composer of famous operas such as ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ (‘The Barber of Seville’) and ‘La Gazza Ladra’, was a great lover of good food. Less known is his passion for Prosciutto di Parma, which the musician used as an ingredient in some of the recipes he invented.

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The right wine for Prosciutto di Parma.

It would be impossible to list here all the right wines, Italian and foreign, to accompany Prosciutto di Parma. The most suitable choice is certainly something quite aromatic and medium-bodied, to balance the sweet and delicate taste of the ham. Something like a ‘Malvasia dei Colli di Parma’ or a ‘Sauvignon’.


How prosciutto is made?

Prosciutto di Parma is a kind of ham requiring not only high-quality meat, but also great skill in the different stages of its preparation. The stages are briefly described below (click here to view a printable version):

01. Cooling: The rear thigh of the pig is placed in a cold room at about zero degrees centigrade: this firms up the meat and makes the subsequent trimming much easier.
02. Trimming: Part of the fat and of the rind is removed until the thigh gets a rounded shape (‘chicken leg’): this particular shape simplifies the salting procedure.
03. Salting: The thigh is treated with salt (‘first salt’) and rests for a week in a cold room. Following, it undergoes a new, light pass of salt (‘second salt’) and rests in the cold room for another 15/18 days.

04. Resting: The superficial salt is removed and the thigh stays at rest for 60/80 days in a cell, so as that it can ‘breath’ (the cell undergoes frequent air changes). The absorbed salt penetrates deeply.
05. Washing & drying: Once washed with warm water to remove any impurities, the thigh starts drying in great rooms using as much as possible natural air flows.
06. Initial curing: The thigh start aging by hanging from the ‘scalere’: wood structures located in large rooms where opposing windows generate natural air flows.

07. Greasing: A mixture of pork fat, salt and pepper is spread over the muscular parts of the thigh that have remained uncovered to prevent them from drying too quickly.
08. Final curing: After their seventh month of life, the thigh is moved to particular cellars known as ‘cantine’ where aging continues.
09. Survey and branding: Twelve months after the beginning of the procedure, the thigh undergo an olfactory examination thanks to targeted punctures performed with a horse bone (the ‘fibula’). If the test is passed, the thigh is branded on fire.

Salt for Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01) Salt for Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01)


Salt for Prosciutto di Parma.

In ancient times salt was so precious that it was often used as a method of payment for Roman legionaries (hence the word ‘salary’ and its Italian translation ‘salario’). This great value was due to its rarity and to the importance of its many, fundamental uses: for example, it was one of the few tools to guarantee the preservation of foods. Among them, pork. Considering this, it’s probably no coincidence that the famous salt mines of Salsomaggiore are located not far from the production area of Prosciutto di Parma, one of the most traditional Italian hams.

A ‘fibula’ to examine prosciutto (crt-01) A ‘fibula’ to examine prosciutto (crt-01)


A ‘fibula’ to examine prosciutto.

Strange as it may seem, even today, despite the incredible technological development of the modern age, the fundamental tool for testing the real quality of prosciutto is the ‘fibula’. It’s a thin needle, made from the bone of a horse’s shin. It’s used by the ‘spillatore’ (or ‘puntatore’) to penetrate the ham thigh in specific points. The horse bone is used for its particular porosity, which captures aromas and then loses them in a short time. Thanks to these aromas, the ‘spillatore’, a professional figure much similar to the sommelier, can evaluate the characteristics of prosciutto, giving a judgment on its evolution.

The Prosciutto di Parma product specification document (crt-01) The Prosciutto di Parma product specification document (crt-01)


The product specification document.

The product specification document of Prosciutto di Parma contains a list of the characteristics that this ham requires to get the Consortium’s quality mark and, consequently, the legal protection guaranteed by the Protected Designation of Origin. These requirements concern, for example:
The suitable breeds of the pigs.
The place of origin of the pigs.
The zones where the meat must be treated.
The composition of the pig’s diet.
Physical, chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the finished product.
Download the entire specification document using the following LINK (courtesy of the Consorzio del prosciutto di Parma).

The brand of Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01) The brand of Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01)


The brand of Prosciutto di Parma.

One of the elements that make it possible to distinguish Prosciutto di Parma from any other ham is the presence on each thigh of a stamped brand representing a five-pointed crown (the Ducal Crown). This mark is deposited in a great number of countries and is used by the members of the ‘Consorzio’ (the Consortium) to certify the origin of their hams, guaranteeing compliance with the product specification document and thus the quality. Since 1991, in addition to the crown, there is also an identification code allowing to trace the manufacturer of each individual leg.

Prosciutto di Parma DOP (crt-01)

Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma (crt-01)


Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma: contatti.

The ‘Consorzio del prosciutto di Parma’ is the association of the most traditional producers of the famous Italian ham. It was founded in 1963 to guarantee its quality, defend it from imitation attempts and at the same time promote it in the world. Today the Consortium includes 150 companies.

Address: Largo Piero Calamandrei, 1/a
43121 Parma (PR)
Tel.: +39 0521 246211


Click here.

The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Cato (patrician Torlonia), 1890/1919 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Gioacchino Rossini, 1865 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Pliny the Elder (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Etruscan fresco (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Pork meat, from Tacuino Sanitatis (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0):

cc-01 – Augustus of Prima Porta, image belonging to Till Niermann (Wikipedia Link)
cc-02 – Legio III Cyrenaica, image belonging to Caliga10 (Wikipedia Link)

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic:

cc-03 – Duroc breed pig, 2009, Royal Show. Image belonging to David Merrett (Wikipedia Link)

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International:

cc-04 – Hannibal in Italy by Jacopo Ripanda. Image belonging to José Luiz / Jbribeiro1 (Wikipedia Link)

The following images are published courtesy of:

crt-01 – Images published courtesy of the the Consorzio del prosciutto di Parma.

Header images:

Images published courtesy of the Consorzio del prosciutto di Parma.

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.