Italian flavors: Modena Ham
- WTI Magazine #106 Aug 19, 2018
From the historical perspective, it is reasonable to assume that the production of prosciutto in the typical area identified in the product specifications has roots that go back as far as the Bronze Age. Thanks to the fertility of the land destined to be used for the first agricultural practices for the prehistoric cultivation of cereals and the large woodland areas filled with animals, the populations of the Panaro valley found favourable conditions for the development of their civilisation. They could also arguably be considered the first in the region to practice animal farming.
In fact, the breeding of pigs as a domestic animal took place very early along the banks of the Panaro, before any other area in Emilia Romagna. In Modena in 1547, the “lardaroli e salsicciai” (lard and sausage makers) formed an independent corporation. Their art was also recognised outside the city borders, and Modena came to be a veritable point of reference in this field.
The processing of pork in the province of Modena became firmly established between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1670, a long list of the kitchen supplies for Cardinal Rinaldo found among the papers of the Este Ducal Chamber makes the refined distinction between “mountain” and “local” prosciutto, mentioning a particular preference for the quality of the former.
In his chronicle of “The Modern State of Vignola”, Belloi (1704) also praises the quality of the pork meats from the piedmont and hilly area, and mentions the pig slaughtering industry.
Prosciutto in particular was also eaten by members of the opulent Renaissance courts, one of the most representative of which was that of the Duke of Modena. As confirmation of its value, old prosciutto was not thrown away but reused in recipes passed down to our times, such as the famous “tortellini”.
Pork quickly became a beloved foodstuff for both the noble classes and the peasant population, because of its excellence and high nutritional value respectively. Farming families possessed good stocks of pigs, and they were often required to pay the landowner an annual tribute made up of shoulders and prosciutto.
In 1969 some manufacturers, driven by the need to uphold the quality and wholesomeness of the product, formed the Modena Prosciutto Consortium, currently formed of one slaughtering firm and 10 prosciutto processing plants, which produce an average of 150,000 Prosciutto di Modena DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) hams a year.
Prosciutto di Modena DOP is the product of a long series of highly delicate stages, as required by the product specifications.
The first stage is the trimming and consists of removing the fat and rind in order to give the prosciutto its classic curved “pear” shape. This operation also provides an opportunity to correct any imperfections in the cut, to provide the optimal conditions for the subsequent salt penetration and to identify any technical conditions that may have a detrimental effect on the subsequent stages.
The thighs used to produce prosciutto must not undergo any treatment except for refrigeration. The thighs are then sprinkled with whole sea salt so that the exposed surface of the inner side and the rind are covered. At the same time, the thighs are massaged with manual or mechanical procedures to prepare the meat to receive the salt and to check there is no blood left, using special pressure points.
The salted thighs are always kept in a horizontal position and are arranged in a specific cell, called the “primo sale” (first salt), where they remain for a variable period of between 5 and 7 days, with a temperature that oscillates between 0 and 4 degrees centigrade, and a relative humidity that varies between 80% and 90%.Once this period has passed, the thighs are taken out of the cell, the residual salt is removed from the surfaces, the massage is repeated and, finally, the meat is sprinkled with more salt.
Placed back in the cell, called the “secondo sale” (second salt), the salted thighs remain there for a further 12/15 days, that is until the completion of the salting process, in the same environmental conditions. Over the course of the whole process, the prosciutto slowly absorbs the salt and loses part of its moisture.
Once the remaining salt is eliminated, the salted thighs are placed in a special room for a period of not less than 60 days, depending on their size. The humidity conditions vary between 65% and 75%, and the temperature ranges between 2 and 5 degrees centigrade, providing the essential conditions for the prosciutto to undergo the process successfully.
During the resting phase, the absorbed salt penetrates the muscle mass with gradual homogeneity, distributing itself evenly. After the rest, the thighs undergo a definitive “washing” with a brush and jets of water mixed with air applied to the external surface at temperatures not greater than 50 degrees centigrade.
In addition to having a completely revitalising effect, the washing removes all surface formations created during the salting and resting as a result of the dehydration. It also tones the outer tissues. After having been drained of the water, the thighs go into a drying room kept at 24/26 degrees centigrade for a period that varies between 5 and 10 hours in relation to the quantity of the product. Relative humidity is also very high (hot-humid 85/90%).
When these levels are reached, intervention with cold batches takes place and the real dehumidifying phase begins, which can last around a week depending on the lots and the ways in which the equipment is used.
After drying, the prosciutto is placed to cure in suitable environments with low humidity and constant ventilation. During the curing, biochemical and enzymatic processes take place in the meat, completing the conversion processes that bring about the characteristic organoleptic priorities.
As such, no specific processing procedure takes place during maturation, except the so-called “sugnatura” (also “stuccatura”, greasing), which is carried out once or twice by coating the surface of the uncovered part of the prosciutto. The paste is made up of suet or lard, salt, pepper and cereal derivatives, and it is finely and uniformly applied through massaging by hand.
The so-called “piercing” or “needle test” is also carried during the curing phase, or in any case before selecting the hams for branding. It consists of probing the meat with a tool derived from a horse bone or tendon. Expert staff with an excellent sense of smell probe the prosciutto to check for the presence of the typical aromas and the absence of defects.
A mere fourteen months from the beginning of the curing and after careful selection of the product, examiners from the inspection body confer the Protected Designation of Origin by branding the rind.
The Local Area
The typical area for the production of Prosciutto di Modena DOP corresponds to the particular hilly zone that lies on the orohydrographic basin of the Panaro river and the confluent valleys, starting from the piedmont belt and not exceeding an altitude of 900 metres.
The production establishments must be situated within this zone, and therefore so must all of the stages from the transformation of the raw material to the final curing.
The raw material used for the production of Prosciutto di Modena DOP comes from pigs born, raised and slaughtered in the following ten regions of Italy: Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Molise, Umbria, Toscana, Marche, Abruzzo and Lazio.
Consorzio del Prosciutto di Modena