There are two items I always have in my fridge and they are prosciutto and parmesan cheese. These classic Italian items are so versatile they can be used to bring a meal together in minutes or lift an ordinary dish into another dimension. And while I merrily use both prosciutto and parmesan in salads, pastas, sandwiches and commonly with a pre-dinner drink, my lack of knowledge on the making of these necessities and how to discern a quality product, was very limited.
I was very grateful when I was invited to a lunch at Balla to verbally learn more about prosciutto di parma and parmigiano reggiano, as well as (more enjoyably), in a four-course meal where the hero of each dish would be either the ham or the cheese.
Prosciutto di parma has been made since the Roman Empire and the centuries-old methods used to make prosciutto are the same methods still being used today. The process begins with a specially-bred pig that is born and raised in one of the 10 designated Italian provinces. The pigs are fed a diet of maize and barley and the whey from locally produced parmigiano. When the pig weighs 160kgs (352lbs) the process of making the prosciutto begins.
The leg is trimmed to give it the classic ‘chicken leg’ shape. The pigskin is covered in humid salt and the muscular parts are covered in dry salt and then it’s put in a climate-controlled cool room for a week. The salt is then removed and the leg re-salted for another 15-18 days and then again, the salt is removed. The leg is left to sit for 60-80 days. The leg is then washed and dried and the drying process takes about a week.
Then the leg is hung on a special wooden frame for approximately three months in a room with windows on either side to create a flow-through breeze. To prevent the outer layers from drying too quickly, sections are covered in a mixture of lard, salt and pepper and sometimes ground rice.
After seven months, the ham is transferred to the cellars with less air and light. The ham can be left for up to 36 months. After 12 months a horse bone needle is inserted into the ham and purely by smelling the bone, experts are able to discern the quality. If the ham passes the smell test it is fire-branded with the Ducal Crown, a stamp of authenticity.
So really, all it takes to make prosciutto di parma is salt, air and time.
We tasted a 15-month prosciutto and a 24-month prosciutto. The younger prosciutto was lighter in colour, less salty and much softer. Because it’s soft and because it’s less salty, this prosciutto would work well being wrapped around things like pork fillets, asparagus spears, melon or crostini.
The 24-month old prosciutto was more intensely flavoured and more dry because the extra hanging time removes more moisture. It was therefore more salty. I was asked which one I preferred but I’d be happy enjoying both.
The only parmesan cheese I knew when I was growing up was the green cylinder of powdered ‘parmesan’ we shook over our spaghetti. It contained an anti-caking agent that gave it a vile taste and the cheese was known for its foul smell. Thank goodness for progress because now there are many varieties of parmesan available.
However, with so many ‘parmesan cheeses’ available, it’s good to know how to recognise the authentic from the fakes. Authentic parmesan is called Parmigiano Reggiano and carries a pin dot stamp on the rind and where appropriate, the Parmigiano Reggiano logo on the packet.
The ‘King of Cheeses’ has been made by hand for over 900 years. Today, 373 dairies across a small region of Italy’s north use the same centuries-old rituals to create the prized cheese.
The cheese is made from cows who are fed on locally grown forage. The milk is delivered to the dairies within two hours of milking. The only ingredients added to the raw milk are salt, natural milk enzymes and calf renet.
Parmigiano Reggiano is 100 per cent naturally made with no additives or preservatives. Every wheel is aged for a minimum of 12 months, the longest of any cheese. Real parmesan has a distinct and unmistakable smell, a crumbly texture when cut and should melt in the mouth. Parmesan is versatile and can be eaten in small chunks, used as a condiment grated on dishes or as an ingredient used in recipes. If you hold a chunk up to your ear and break it in half, you should hear a crackling sound.
We tried an 18-month parmigiano, a 24-month and a 36-month. The older the cheese, the sharper it is. My favourite was the 24-month parmigiano. If you’re very talented and discerning, when you snap each of these cheeses at your ear drum, you are be able to tell which is which by the sound of the crackle. I’ll leave that to the experts.
To celebrate Prosciutto Di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, Stefano Manfredi and Gabriele Taddeucci of Balla created a unique menu. We sat in the private dining room and after a glass of Prosecco our meal began with a shared antipasti.
The puffed pastry with artichokes and parmigiano reggiano cream was amazing. I loved the cream and found it to be smooth and subtle and that it allowed the artichokes to shine.
The mozzarella and prosciutto di parma roll with rocket leaves is something I would like to recreate at home as this is a great summer dish and very pretty with the three colours. The salty prosciutto combined very well with the mellow mozzarella and the fresh rocket gave the roll great crunch.
The calamari and asparagus salad with pan fried prosciutto di parma was everyone’s favourite. A wonderful blend of colour, texture and flavour.
The primo course of parmigiano reggiano risotto with Il Caratello balsamic vinegar was a very smooth and rich risotto. It was very simple with no added salt beyond what was in the parmesan cheese. The balsamic was sweet rather than acidic and was a lovely contrast to the saltiness of the parmigiano.
The secondo course was a veal tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto di parma with artichokes and vincotto. The veal was tender and rare and the 15-month prosciutto helped keep the veal moist while also adding a mild saltiness to the dish.
The dolce course was very interesting. It was olive oil mousse with crispy parmigiano reggiano and marinated strawberries. I had never before had an olive oil mousse and it was flavoured with vanilla beans and sweetened with icing sugar. The mousse was very smooth and creamy and you could definitely taste the olive oil. The parmigiano wafer was very crisp and provided a great contrast of texture to the mousse. The strawberries had been marinated in vinegar, icing sugar and star anise and they gave the dish a lovely sweetness. Gabriele said the best way to eat the dessert is to enjoy all three components on the spoon together and I would have to agree that together, this was an incredible experience.
Learning about prosciutto and parmigiano was fascinating and what impressed me is not only how old the methods used to create both products are, but also how both items are produced so very naturally. Next time I shop for prosciutto I’ll be looking for the Ducal crown stamp of authenticity and making sure the parmigiana has the pin dot stamp.
Alternatively, we could head to Balla where quality authentic products are used to create a wonderful Italian dining experience.
Balla at The Star: Level G, Harbourside, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont NSW
Ph: 02 9657 9129