How Pork Becomes Prosciutto

Paolo with Students

Italy diary: Since joining a cheese cult several years ago, I find myself in a regular quandary over prosciutto. First, I can never remember how to spell it. (I before U, I before U!) Second, no matter how many times I wrap it around a Stilton-stuffed date, I can’t wrap my head around how prosciutto is made.

So…prosciutto is not cooked? It’s cured on the bone? With salt?

In Parma, I took twenty-two students to meet a master. An award-winning prosciutto master named Paolo Folzani. He spent almost three hours walking us from ham chamber to ham chamber, through cold rooms and warm rooms, past what I can only describe as “prosciutto curtains” — leg upon leg, hanging from the ceiling (since you don’t want any part of the process to touch the floor).

In Bologna, there was gelato school. But in Parma, it was all about prosciutto at Greci and Folzani.

Greci and Folzani

Paolo Folzani

Before I ever met Paolo, I ate his slip-thin prosciutto at Philadelphia’s Di Bruno Bros., where Emilio Mignucci tears up over the mere mention of Paolo’s name. “Paolo makes the best prosciutto in Italy,” Emilio once told me, “His rotondo dolce is outa this world. I love it. It melts on your tongue. On your tongue!”

I ate it. It was tasty to me, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to look for in a prosciutto. And rotondo dolce? I could only translate it in my head:¬†Rotund sweetness?

Paolo met us in front of his family’s prosciutto facility, which is to say…in front of his house. After all, he was born in a room just feet away from the vault-like freezers where he now spends his days.

He’s not just a prosciutto master. He’s the prince of a prosciutto dynasty. His father’s family — the Folzanis — made prosciutto. His mother’s family — the Grecis — made prosciutto. And now Paolo oversees 120,000 prosciuttos each year. He ships about thirty percent to the United States.

Colavita USA parma ham

Mr. Salty

Prosciutto from Parma is special “because it’s sweeter than other prosciuttos,” Paolo explained. To achieve this sweetness, the meat cannot be over-salted. Two master salters — men who have spent all their lives administering salt to raw pork thigh — are held in high regard. We met one, a twinkly-eyed elf who had spent twenty years in the salt world. He gave us rides on the elevator.

The Master Salter

In a nutshell, here’s how prosciutto is made at Greci & Folzani:

  • Pork legs are delivered three times a week. Paolo chooses the plumpest himself.
  • Two master salters salt the legs immediately — they have to factor in fat and weight to get the right ratio of salt to meat.
  • Pure sea salt is the only curing ingredient in Paolo’s prosciutto. No chemicals.
  • He is inspected by by the FDA every day, by Italian inspectors once per month.
  • After the first salting, there is a second salting. This salt is more coarse.
  • After several weeks, the prosciutto is de-salted and moved from coolers into a drying room.
  • After one year — yes, one year! — each prosciutto loses 30 percent of its weight.
  • Prosciutto classico is aged 15 months. Rotondo dolce: 18 months.
  • Each prosciutto bears the stamp of its birth date and its farm of origin.

Fat and Herbs

The Salt and Herb Room

The best prosciutto, according to Paolo, is the fattiest — fat ribbons are to ham what chocolate ripples are to ice cream. Most supermarkets want to cut the fat off because customers — Americans, particularly — are fat phobic. Just remember, removing the fat removes flavor.

On the third floor of Paolo’s meat mansion, there is a room where men smear lard and herbs onto the prosciutto as a final phase in the curing process. I liked wandering through this room — music was playing, people were chatting, prosciutto was flying.

Paolo after the fat room

“If you eat tough, salty prosciutto,” Paolo told us, “it’s not well-made.” The sign of a quality prosciutto is this:

It should be fatty-licious.

It should be silky.

It should be sweet.

I trudged through the rain yesterday to buy some Greci and Folzani Rotondo Dolce. It was delicious. At last, I appreciated what I was eating. And I could taste Paolo’s dilligence. It sent a shiver up my spine, all the way from Parma to Philadelphia.

Paolo's Prosciutto on bread

Note: In May, I took a group of students from Saint Joseph’s University across northern Italy for a 12-day food tour. This post details one of our many stops. Nom nom nom.

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4 Responses to “How Pork Becomes Prosciutto”
  1. Aunt Tookie says:

    Madame, your adventures are always such fun to read about! The pictures are wonderful enough to grab and eat!

  2. Jenny Depa says:

    Very interesting! Thank you… lovely photos!!!

  3. Julia says:

    I became a fan of Prosciutto exactly a year ago when I went to Italy! Reading this made me hungry! Prosciutto with Mozzarella and Cantaloupe is my favorite!

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