Here's The Story Behind What Makes Italy's Famous Parmesan And Prosciutto So Delicious And So Expensive

This week I had authentic parmesan cheese and prosciutto di Parma, both made in the same region of northern Italy, for the first time. It was a revelation, especially when I realised that up until now, I’ve been eating crap.

Put simply, you’ll find lots of things passed off as “parmesan-style” and prosciutto, but the real thing is protected by special laws called Protected Designation of Origin. To call the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano and the ham Prosciutto di Parma, it has to come from there.

And you really can taste the difference: classic Italian flavours that are rich, salty and more-ish.

Lunching at Stefano Manfredi’s restaurant Balla in Sydney, my food world was blown away as I sampled the real thing

The parmesan is granular and crumbly, with a distinct desirable punch of flavour. The prosciutto is buttery soft and dissolved in my mouth leaving a salty but fragrant aftertaste.

I was in foodie heaven.

As I dined Italian chef Luca Ciano explained the intricate and fascinating processes involved in making these delicacies, which don’t come cheap. Age plays a big part. It takes time to make an artisan product.

Ciano said the cost of storing aged products, means the pricing is scaled accordingly. The older the product, the more expensive it is.

The cost of an 18-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano is around $53kg and Prosciutto di Parma costs around $79kg at a good Italian deli.

Here is all you need to know about what it takes to make parmesan and prosciutto.

Parmigiano Reggiano

Ciano says one way to identify you are getting the real deal is to check the rind of the cheese. If it is authentic you will notice a pin dot stamp on the rind saying Parmigiano Reggiano. No stamp? It’s no real parmesan.

With more than 900 years of history behind this delicious handmade wheel of cheese, there are only 373 dairy makers in northern Italy that make Parmigiano Reggiano using the same processes and strict methods used back in the 13th century by Benedictine monks.

Each wheel, weighing around 36kg, contains 550 litres of milk, and is made from just milk, salt, natural milk enzymes and calf rennet (a natural enzyme that helps curdle the milk).

To be called Parmesan, it has to be aged for a minimum of 12 months – the longest of all cheeses – but it can be older: 18, 22, 30 month-vintages, and sometimes even more.

It also takes a long time to make a single wheel.

Each cheese is made from two milkings, one in the morning and one evening. The evening milk is left to rest overnight so the cream separates away, and the partly skimmed milk is poured into copper cauldrons with the whole morning milk.

The combined milk is warmed until it turns to curd, then it’s broken into tiny parts with an medieval tool called a spino. Then it’s cooked again until the granuals begin to form into a single mass. It’s cut into two parts, wrapped in cloth, then put in a mould for 2-3 days to give it the parmesan wheel shape. The cheese then sits in a salt-saturated solution for 20-25 days. After all that, it’s time for maturation, which as I said takes a minimum of 12 months.

So at the bare minimum you’re looking at approximately 394 days, adding 12, 24, 36 months for a drier, stronger cheese.

“One thing most people don’t realise about authentic Parmesan is just how versatile it is. It can be eaten as a food in small chunks, as a condiment grated on dishes or as an ingredient used in recipes,” said Ciano.

Prosciutto di Parma

If you are eating prosciutto in Australia, there are only 15 authorised importers you can get the legit ham from and just 10 places in northern Italy produce the pigs used Prosciutto di Parma.

The pigs are fed a special diet of maize, barley and the whey of Parmigiano Reggiano. They’re a breed called Duroc or large white have to be nine months old and weigh 160kg before ham time hits them. Of course you only get two prosciutto per pig.

Ciano says unlike some “prosciutto” ham around, the only ingredients in Prosciutto di Parma are “pork, salt, air and time.”

An authentic ham must be first cooled for 24 hours before it is trimmed into a leg before it enters a complicated and lengthy process of ageing.

It is salted, washed, pre-cured, greased and cellared to get to the point where experts smell it to check the quality. That process takes approximately 780 days for a 12 month-aged ham.

If, like me, you like the flavour to be punchy and strong, your ham could aged 2 or 3 years before it gets to the plate.

Then it’s all about maintaining standards.

The Prosciutto di Parma Consortium rejects hundreds of thousands of the 9 million hams produced each year, which stops them being fire-branded with the five point ducal crown, that says it’s truly from Parma.

(Note: there’s another authentic prosciutto, made in San Daniele, and a fierce rivalry between two towns over who makes the best ham.)

Ciano says often Australians are unaware that they are missing out on authentic products and may not understand the difference between good and an outstanding produce.

“There are many other types of unauthentic Parmesan cheese and parma ham on the market here,” he says.

People don’t realise are fakes.

But, Ciano adds “once you’ve tried it you’ll know the difference.”

I certainly did. And that’s amore.

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