We started this ambitious day at Greci & Folzani, a prosciutto processing facility. On the way there we spied a giant grape cluster sculpture in the middle of a round-about. I mean it was HUGE!
An old dog greeted us with a few friendly barks at G&F. Then owners Margherita and Paolo (sister and brother) welcomed us into the facility. While culatello and prosciutto both come from a hog's rear haunches, culatello is just the large upper muscle meat and prosciutto is the whole rear leg cured on the the bone. The curing process is different for each.
Paolo led the tour. Within two days of slaughter, the leg bones arrive fresh from Parma. Each weighs about 30 pounds and will reduce over 30% in weight. About 20% is lost in the de-boning process and the rest during curing. At market time, each ham weighs only about 16 pounds.
The process goes something like this:The legs come in from the farm, are inspected for the highest quality, and are trimmed to the perfect shape.
They are date and "place" stamped with a brand. Notice the distinctive crown on the brand. That means it is genuinely from Parma. Several more inspection brands are added throughout the process.
Hams go through a sea salting and re-salting process over 15-18 days. This keeps the meat sweet-tasting and supple. Salt is the only preservative. No nitrates, nitrites, or other chemicals are used. Here's Paolo at the salting machine.
Next the hams hang or rest for 70 days in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms. The meat darkens, but returns to its original rosy colour in the final days of curing.
Then a 3-month initial curing process starts. Hams hang in a well-ventilated room for gradual drying and hardening of the skin.
Just before the final curing, exposed surfaces of the hams are covered with a gray paste (sugna pronounced SOON-yah) made of rice, flour, pepper, salt, lard, and is gluten-free. This is called greasing. It prevents external layers from drying too rapidly. John is the only person at this facility who performs this task.
The last step in the process is the final curing. In the seventh month the hams are transferred into a room with less light and air to hang until curing is complete.
A final test for quality is the nose test. A special porous horse bone is pressed into a ham and "grabs" a little essence to sniff. From this you can tell if the meat is good or bad and ready to go to market. Paolo demonstrated and let a few of us try.
Paolo also gave John a gift of several "testers" to take back to his new culinary school in Kalamazoo. John said this was quite an honor.
Finally the ham is de-greased, de-boned, pressed flat (presser machine at right), and vacuum packed. Now it is labeled and ready for market. The entire process can take 16-24 months depending on how long the final cure takes.
After our tour we went to the office where Paolo, Margherita, and their Papa served a lovely charcuterie and cheese plate which included some of their prosciutto, of course.
I had not eaten any meat besides fish on the trip so far, but I decided to taste this spread. Oh, my goodness. The prosciutto was wonderful. I also got a round of applause from the room for "eating meat." Who knew!!
Some more fun facts about the operation. They start the above process with approximately 2,500 hams per week and over 100,000 per year. Ten employees share all the jobs. There is an intricate "highway" system of machinery that takes the hams from step-to-step.
Greci & Folzani pay $300,000 in electricity per year in machinery and refrigeration usage. Half their prosciutto hams are exported to the U.S. and import fees reach one million dollars.
There are about 150 prosciutto producers in Italy and about 20 in all of the U.S. In the U.S., the FDA might visit each factory twice a year, while in Italy there are constant visits to each factory during every step of the process to maintain the highest standard. The quality Italian product is definitely worth the higher price we pay in the U.S.