Proscuitto di Parma has become a U.S. staple on cheese boards, at stores and in American homes.
Feels like only yesterday that Prosciutto di Parma was sliding into our consciousness via fine-dining appetizers. My first sighting was on a wedge of orange melon that was wrapped about the middle with a thin swathe of the mysterious meat.
That mystery didn’t last long. Nowadays, Prosciutto di Parma is everywhere—on our pizzas, in our eggs, on our charcuterie boards. Your thumb would balk at the endless scroll of prosciutto recipes on Pinterest. High-end sandwich shops announce their cred with a shiny red Berkel slicer on the counter, and cheesemongers learn to cut the stuff Bible-page thin. Prosciutto di Parma may have begun as a ‘90s-era trend in Wolfgang Puck establishments, but it’s now as ubiquitous as Parmesan.
Before the crowned king of hams won us over, though, there was a 20-year period when American consumers weren’t even allowed to buy the stuff. In 1967, a few cases of African swine fever in Italy scared federal regulators into banning all imported pork. The Italian government curbed the fever’s spread efficiently with wild boar hunting and euthanization, but that didn’t matter to the U.S. government—they left the ban in place for 22 years.
Prosciutto di Parma returned stateside in the fall of 1989—30 years ago; now anniversary shops across the U.S. are celebrating with discounts, sandwich specials, classes and demonstrations. That the anniversary still means so much is a testament to how important the ham is to the American consumer—and how important the American market is to Prosciutto di Parma. Our appreciation for, and use of, this product supports traditional Italian farmers and artisans, keeping heritage hog breeds around and ancient methods in practice. In 1989, 50,000 Parma hams came into the U.S.; today, we import 600,000 pieces a year, making us the top market outside of Italy.
“We were among the first companies to export to the U.S.,” says third-generation Prosciutto di Parma maker Federico Galloni, who also serves as vice president of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma. “Since then, we have always invested in this country to enhance and promote the product at its best.” Galloni produces about 270,000 hams a year, 25 percent of which go to the States.
At DiPalo’s Fine Food in Manhattan, almost every customer comes in looking for Prosciutto di Parma. The day I spoke to owner Lou DiPalo on a Saturday, his first 10 customers of the day had all ordered some.
But how did this ham go from the relative obscurity of an all-out ban to a foodie pantry staple? It starts with a robust regional consortium itching to go abroad, and one fateful phone call.
A Simple Favor
When David Biltchik started his career with the state department in 1959, he was posted up in the Italian Riviera (hey, somebody’s gotta do it). While working at the consulate in Genoa, Biltchik befriended the locals, unwittingly laying the groundwork for relationships that would greatly alter the American artisan food market a few decades down the line.
Biltchik worked in the commerce department when he got back to the States, and he was assisting on international trade policy in 1981 when he got an unexpected phone call.
“A friend of mine in Parma called me up one day,” Biltchik recalls, “He said, David, we want to export Prosciutto di Parma to the United States, help! And I said, well, sure.” That agreement kicked off an eight-year journey to reinstate the king of hams in the American marketplace.
As a regulatory consultant to the Consorzio, Biltchik’s first order of business was damage assessment: During the swine flu outbreak, no Parma pigs had been affected and no one had gotten sick eating Prosciutto di Parma. Essentially, the only way the virus could have spread in the U.S. would have been through an American pig eating garbage containing ASF-contaminated pork. With this very narrow potential for cannibalism as the only real risk, Bilchik elbowed his way in.
To convince the American government that the product was safe, he took Department of Agriculture staff to Parma to see how the product is made. Then, he waited patiently—nearly three years—as Animal and Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) brought hams over to a heavily restricted research facility off the North Fork of Long Island where potential infectious livestock diseases are studied.
Biltchik, not allowed on the island, awaited news on the mainland and, in 1987, he got it. After hammering out the incredibly detailed Regulation 9417 with the USDA and APHIS, Italian makers were given the green light to begin crafting the hams that would, after two years of aging, be the first to enter American markets in 22 years. (All other imported pork was still banned at this time; this regulation dealt only with Prosciutto di Parma.)
“We’d had requests for it,” says Lou DiPalo, speaking of the dry spell during the ban. “People always asked, is it imported, when are we gonna have imported.” DiPalo’s was one of the first to receive Prosciutto di Parma when it re-entered the American market, and the clientele at this specialty shop in New York City’s Little Italy welcomed the product. Elsewhere, the Consorzio had to work to familiarize Americans with their brand, for a short time enlisting Sophia Lauren to be the face of Prosciutto di Parma.
“We made people taste it,” says Emilio Mignucci, a third-generation owner at DiBruno Bros. in Philadelphia. “The best way to market it was to put it into people’s mouths. We made sure they tasted and compared it to the domestic versions. It was an easy sell.” Mignucci says the customers weren’t necessarily asking for it during the ban, but they did have neighbors in south Philly who simply cured their own meats in their homes to fill the void.
Domestic and homemade hams share two main ingredients with Prosciutto di Parma—pork and salt—but the similarities stop there. Ask anyone in Parma what sets their ham apart, and they’ll name another indispensable ingredient: air.
The Consorzio—established in 1963 by 23 members producing 50,000 hams annually and now home to 150 producers turning out 9 million hams a year—sets strict rules. The five-pointed ducal crown, symbolizing the Duke of Parma, is only stamped on hams that meet all production requirements and pass an independent inspection after aging. (The latter is done by smell, using a sharpened porous horse bone inserted at key points in the ham to pick up informative aromas.)
From the start, Duroc, Large White and Landrace pigs must be raised in the hills around Parma between the Enza and Stirone Rivers, where they’re fed grain and whey from the nearby production of Parmigiano Reggiano. After this tough life, when they’ve reached around 300 pounds, they’re slaughtered and their hind legs are trimmed and massaged to dispense with excess moisture and open up muscle fibers. The meat is rubbed liberally with Mediterranean sea salt during the prima sale, aged in cold storage, then rinsed and salted again before undergoing riposto—a cold rest of around three months. Following that, they’re spread with a thin layer of sugna—pork lard flavored with salt, pepper and flour to shield them from insects or other impurities.
Moisture is the enemy in preserving raw meat, and at this point the hams have lost around 15 percent of theirs. To fully dry, though, they must be aged a minimum of 12 months. Salt helps, but it’s the air that brings us home. Even in modern industrial plants, aging room windows are left open during this stage to expose the hams to the Langhirano breezes, rolling off the Appenine mountains and in from the Mediterranean and Ligurian seas.
“This is what sets Prosciutto di Parma apart from, say, Prosciutto San Daniele,” says Lou DiPalo, who has visited the aging rooms of his producers. “In the same way, San Daniele has its own unique microclimate, cold air from the Alps and warm humid air from the Adriatic.”
Ham in Parma dates back to Cato the Censor, and the process today mimics the temperature fluctuations the meat was subjected to prior to modernization. Pigs were traditionally slaughtered in late fall, then salted and rested throughout winter before being hung up near open windows to dry. The cold storage chambers hams move through today are able to replicate the seasons of northern Italy all year round.
“Prosciutto di Parma curing never ends,” says Federico Galloni, describing his typical day. “I spend most of my time checking the hams one by one.” At his plant, they produce hams aged 16–30 months and salt every one by hand.
This attention to detail produces a flavor profile unparalleled in the marketplace. “It should melt in your mouth,” says DiPalo. “You should hardly have to chew it.”
When I asked Galloni how to enjoy the fruit of his labors, he said the simplest way is always best: “Sliced very thinly with its own fat—please do not remove it! It is important for its unique taste and sweetness! And some bread or fresh fruits and a good glass of sparkling wine.”
After all these years, Biltchik is still advising the Consorzio and others on navigating international markets. Regarding his work on ending the ban, he feels nothing but gratitude.
When I tried to thank him, he says, “Thank the American consumer for falling in love with Prosciutto di Parma.”