The Great Hall of Hams

A worker checks in a special room where the Parma hams are hung to dry in Langhirano near Parma. Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced in a very restricted area of 29 sq km (11.2 sq mile) around the town of Parma in the region of Emilia Romagna, just north of Tuscany. Around 10 million hams are sold every year, of which about 2 million are exported, mainly to France, the United States and Germany, which each consume about 400,000 a year. (REUTERS, file photo from 2009)


  1. I’m imagining what a hall of horrors it would be if those were human legs.  Fortunately, it’s just filled with tasty tasty pig.

    1. I’m imagining what a hall of horrors it would be if those were human legs.

      You mean the Great Hall of Gams?

  2. I like Proscuitto on leftover (Thanksgiving) turkey sandwiches or wrapped around asparagus with phillo dough.

    1. In fact, the pigs are raised in The Netherlands, then transported to Parma alive, so they can be called pigs from Parma.

    1. Boccalone is SRS BSNS cured meats. (And it should be — you have to be careful or your product will kill you.)

      Chris Cosentino, who is a, let’s say, “less-over-exposed” celebrity chef, runs it and a “not for the unadventurous” restaurant called Incanto. Typically, there will be a course of bone marrow, kidneys, or hearts.

    2. hivemind in effect, i initially came to this thread to post that Homer quote; but instead, I’ll just leave this here:

  3. Could any gastronomes tell me if there is an actual difference between the Italian and the Spanish cured hams. They’re all nom, obviously, but even when I bring bring the local Serrano or Iberico (Spanish) ham back home I find myself calling it  Parma ham for convenience sake. I do notice that the best Spanish ham is very dark with white flecks while the Italian version is generally paler, but from asking around the preparation is the same and the only variance is how the pig is reared and fed. So is it just a diet/climate thing or is there a more profound difference?

    1. I’m sure someone could break it down to genetic variance in the hog populations used, but as far as I know, it really does all come down to the diet and their environment. The only other thing I remember is that Iberico hams have a higher amount of omega 3 fatty acids in them than the others, and because the hogs subsist almost entirely on acorns, their meat has a darker color and somewhat richer flavor. For all that, however, I’d be equally delighted to have a nice Parma or Serrano ham in my fridge.

        1. In Europe they are legally protected, just like term champagne, you call to call it sparkling wine. But in North American you can call it what ever you like, though Parma does have very high standards and quality control so often time the imitation products are inferior.

          1. Note that, from what I understand, the debate on this point is still open at the WTO. I wouldn’t be surprised to see things change at some point in the not-so-far future.

        2. The fun thing is that people from Parma (where I live at the moment) won’t actually refer to the region at all. You just order ‘(prosciutto) crudo’. That said, there is an European law that won’t let you use “Parma” in connection with any ham that is not from the small region around the town. The same is true for the cheese, parmigiano reggiano, which is also from here.

      1. from wiki of jamon serrano

        There are many producers of Spanish hams but the level of quality can be judged by the following:The type of pigThe way the pig has been fedThe part of the pig used to make the hamThe way the ham is curedThe four major quality categories of cured ham are as follows, from highest to lowest quality:Jamón Iberico de Bellota: Free-range, acorn-fed Iberian pigsJamón Iberico de Recebo: Acorn, pasture and compound-fed Iberian pigsA regional variation of Jamón SerranoJamón Iberico de Campo: (Sometimes just Jamón Iberico in short and also known as Jamón de Pata Negra). Compound-fed Iberian pigs. Pata negra (literally black hoof), which only accounts for about five percent of total ham production, is made from the Black Iberian Pig (cerdo ibérico). The best varieties of pata negra are range fed and fattened onacorns in cork oak groves along the southern border between Spain and Portugal. (see the two subcategories above)Jamón Serrano: (also known as Jamón Reserva, Jamón Curado and Jamón Extra). Compound-fed white pigs.
        Jamon serrano ftw

    2. I would enthusiastically add that there are a wide variety of excellent cured hams made right here in the US. Start here to learn more (I sincerely hope that’s the right link – their site seems to be down at the moment). I bought a Wigwam ham from Edwards of Surrey County (VA) for Christmas of 2010 . It was incredible but I later discovered that they also have a Surryano (SP? – pun intended) with a longer cure period that is reportedly even more nom-worthy. This year my lovely wife bought me a ham from Col Newsom’s in Kentucky ; also excellent. It is being consumed a few delicate, fat-riddled slices at a time as it sits in a place of honor in the fridge. Should be gone by spring.

      An important note on preparation. Both of the producers I mention above and nearly all the other cured ham producers in this country seem to want you to cook their hams. This is crazy. Total lunacy. If the ham comes with the appropriate USDA stamp then they’ve been fully cured and are safe to eat with no cooking. As we yanks typically cure our hams slightly less time than the major European producers you’ll get a ham that isn’t as dry as you may be accustomed to (unless you cook it – then dry will rule the day). The Edward’s Surryano is an exception – they don’t instruct you to cook those.

      Yes, I did marry well.

  4. “Around 10 million hams are sold every year, of which about 2 million are exported”
    So that means the Italians eat 8 million of them, 20x as many as the US?  Who cares about their economic problems then, their lives sound awesome.

  5. Notice that it can only be produce in a very small area. Similar thing happened with champagne some years ago. Here in South Africa they were making champagne rivaling the French, who then decided that they somehow have a monopoly on the name and nobody else may use it unless they reside in the Champagne region.

    Since I refuse to overpay for a name, now I simply drink sparkling wine and eat locally produced ham which is everybit as good as the other stuff…pffft…

    1. Absolutely a decent Prosecco or Cava or any sparkling wine as long as it is made with the same method is a match or superior to their overpriced cousins. A sparkling wine by any other name would taste as sweet.

        1. Is it freaky that I like white wine dry but sparkly to be a little sweet? I blame my Dad who would always give us a little Buck’s Fizz on Christmas morning. Hell of a way to start the day. Soupy Twist!

    2. I actually rather like the concept of Protected Geographical Status. It doesn’t stop anyone producing anything. It just restricts what you’re allowed to call it. You cannot produce Champagne in SA – Champagne is a region in France. You can (and many do) produce excellent sparkling wine.

      To give a different example, look at the sorry state of Cheddar. Is it a particular style of tangy cheese from Somerset, or is it some anonymous block of bland, industrially produced gummi käse? It can actually be both – there is no way to separate them by name. Stilton, on the other hand, does have protected status, so if you buy a piece of Stilton, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting.

      I might choose to pay more for a known name, while you choose to pay less for a lesser known name. You could be onto something good – maybe you have found an undiscovered gem. That keeps food interesting. If anyone tells you that sparkling wine isn’t worth drinking if it’s not Champagne, they’re an idiot (or maybe from Champagne). But anything that helps to preserve regional variation is a good idea.

      1. Stilton, on the other hand, does have protected status, so if you buy a piece of Stilton, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting

        You can also guarantee that it didn’t actually come from the village of Stilton, as this is outside the protected region.

        Other curiosities of the system are that Newcastle Brown Ale recently voluntarily rescinded its protected status, so the brewery could make it in Gateshead (and later Yorkshire); and that Newmarket sausages were not protected for many years until two rival butchers could agree on a recipe to send to the EU.

        If there are 10 million hams in 29 square km, does that work out to 2.9 hams per square metre in this region? Where do all the pigs live?

  6. 1. I’m getting hungry now.

    2. Off color but I’m sure that’d be the last place you’d find a Muslim… especially a vegan Muslim.
    3. Someone photoshop that to put a few of the Angry Birds in there please.

  7. Screw environmental problems, as long as we have these near-decadent vices. Rather a good tasting piece of meat, than a future. Yes, it is just that bad. Taking such a simple thing as foodstuffs and turning it into a part of your personality, something you’d defend and hold dear for the sole reason of taste. Taste damnit, no matter the implications.

    Totally worth it.

    1. Oh, there you are.  Where you been the last three hours?

      Actually, I’m kinda surprised someone hasn’t yet mentioned how awful this would look if there were cat legs hanging on them thar walls.

      That is some yummy-looking planetary apocalypse hanging up there, I must agree.

      1. Cat legs or human legs (mentioned above) would be weird and macabre, mainly because those aren’t food – at least not to most people.  This photo is awesome, imagine the scent in that room.  I can smell prosciutto just looking at it.   

    2. I take it by your indignant diatribe that you have never availed yourself of the benefits of an internal combustion engine, and have therefore never strayed more than walking distance from the place of your birth, and that in your home you would never deign to avail of the satanic electrodomestic appliances that are prevalent in this supposedly developed society which by their very nature require the use of the dreaded fossil fuel. 
      My sarc is better than your sarc.

      1. Thing is, i could drive like a mad man, utilizing fossil fuel like the average westerner utilizes self-indulgence, and still give less impact on the environment than having a meat component in my diet. Yes, the meat industry stands for more environmental impact than the transport sector, in reports backed by the EU. The strange thing is that we dodge facts and numbers pointing to an unsustainable trend when that trend endangers a taste.

        Decadence is the word, no matter who has the biggest pe- best sarc.

        1. Eating (small amounts of) pork is actually pretty environmentally friendly, as the pigs eat various food scraps that people won’t, or are turned loose to forage in forests. It’s a similar thing with lamb/mutton and goat, as those animals can graze on land that’s completely unsuitable for other forms of farming (like mountains).

          While the amount of meat in the current Western diet is unsustainable, eating some meat is better for the environment than eating none (while none is probably better than loads).

        2. And yet here you are using a computer to access the internet; 

          While these figures may be out of date the impact of utilising modern tech as a way to communicate is far worse than say sending smoke signals, unless you live in a bubble you are more or less as decadent as the rest of us and contribute your fair share to the destruction of our planet.  Look at all the products in your household, count the environmental cost of those products and consider if as a total they are much less than those of your average meat eater. 

          Oh Edit: Uber Sarc

    1. Hell has an awful lot of rooms right here on earth, it would seem.  “McDonalds”, for instance, is a Scottish word meaning “Bovine Abaddon.”  Gehenna Fried Chicken rather sneakily changed its name to KFC years ago, though actual denizens of Gehenna and Kentucky (many of the same people!) were not fooled.  And most American fish-n-chip shops still serve Tartarus sauce.

      Y’know, I don’t think Hell would have a room like this.  Hell would be the room down the hall, with the bolt guns and power saws and blood-slicked floors, and they’d probably just throw away the severed hams.  Or bounce them off the noses of the terrified victims next in line.

      Never has there been a time when more people chowed down on seaweed and daffodils than on other dead mammals.  If you would have us outgrow this Hell of our own making, you have a long, long row to hoe.

    2. sad is your life if you can’t understand other people’s pleasures.
      btw, xeni is a vegetarian (amirite?) and she had no problem in posting this to delight us.

      1. Sad is your life when you can’t understand other peoples suffering from other peoples pleasures. These posts ought to do little else than provoke debate, as it is a very important one to have.

  8. and very tasty it is too. Interestingly, just like Parmigiano Reggianocheese, this stuff actually functions as entire capital reserves for major banks. Not that it seems to be working. Undervalued if you ask me.

  9. Maybe include a BLOW BY BLOW from the start of the miserable lives for the animals that they carved these ‘hams’ out of. Start with the screaming, the terror, the beatings, the throat slitting and the blood draining while they are still alive. Oh yeah and the mother pig screaming and in psychological terror as her piglets are taken away.Ever seen this first hand? I have.

    1. Well, still infinitely better than Smithfield (number one ‘producer’ of American pork and pork products).

      And replying to Donald above: your historical argument doesn’t hold water. There’s a _huge_ difference between killing a mammoth so your village can eat or — very rarely — slaughtering that chicken or goat in the backyard and having a room full of what were once thousands of pigs.

      Not meaning to preach here (I occasionally eat meat myself, I condemn nobody) but man, keep some perspective! Never before have humans eaten as much (mass-produced) meat as they do now.

      That is all.

      1. Hey, never before have we mass-produced so many humans before… or at least kept them alive long enough to reproduce themselves.  Lots of hungry mouths to feed, most of them omnivorous rather than herbivorous.

        As you said, this isn’t exactly Smithfield here.  I think my perspective is realistic.  The “room full of what were once thousands of pigs” isn’t meant for a single family or tribe or village, you know.  If you believe that meat is murder (and since you yourself occasionally eat meat, I imagine you don’t), then of course you’re going to view such a room as the scene of genocide.  But if you’re okay with eating a dead pig yourself on occasion, and you realize that what you see here are simply pieces of dead pig destined for a whole lot of people, then what’s the problem?  Because we’re not villagers in prehistoric Mesopotamia anymore, are we?

        1. Forget prehistoric anything, think rural Europe 50-60 years ago. Meat consumption in the quantities we see today and insanely concentrated meat “production” is a pretty recent phenomenon and rather unnecessary, even harmful.

          Also, the “feeding hungry mouths” angle is a red herring; these pigs (millions of them, even if the conditions are probably nowhere near as bad as Smithfield’s) are industrially raised and slaughtered and consume massive quantities of crops that would feed humans much more efficiently.

          Not saying you shouldn’t eat some of that ham but humanity isn’t any better of because of increased meat production, seriously.

          1. Who said it was?  My point is that you have here an area that produces 10 million hams per year, presumably from five million pigs.  And those hams are delivered worldwide, to make millions of meals.  Some of those who eat those hams might only eat one or two per annum; some of those people might eat them twice weekly.

            I get that it’s a huge problem that people (particularly Americans, no?) eat way too much meat, and in order to feed those vast numbers of people their vast quantities of meat, we’ve transformed cattle- and pig-farming from a relatively bucolic and possibly relatively humane affair into a horrorshow of terror, brutality, blood, mayhem, pollution, and waste.  Not to mention atherosclerosis, hypertension, obesity, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

            But that’s still beside my point.  You, yourself, occasionally eat meat.  You might possibly find one of these hams to be a delectable indulgence for a holiday meal, once or twice a year.  Now imagine that there are a mere ten million occasional Parma ham-indulgers just like you worldwide.  Et voila, suddenly we find ourselves with a room full of pig legs, a Swine Hell.  And just to feed the occasional fancy-ham indulgence once a year for 0.14% of the world’s population.

            If scales like this give people nightmares, I really don’t know how they cope with anything in modern life.

    2. I have seen it.  I remember as a kid, buckets of blood in the kitchen, after a pig was slaughtered.  A couple of neighbors came over to help out, and they were making sausages, right there, in our kitchen.  If you can’t handle a dead/ bloody carcass, or you couldn’t kill your food, then you shouldn’t eat it.  I think the reason people are grossed out by blood and the “odd bits” of an animal, is because majority are so disconnected from the animal.  Most people go to the supermarket and buy a pre-cut or ground piece of meat, and they don’t even know what part of animal they are consuming.  They don’t see the animal.  There was a time, not all that long ago, when people ate the entire animal.  Now most of the tasty bits are thrown out or used for animal feed.  I think it began following WWII, when people stopped eating the odd bits, because eating all of the animal reminded them of poverty associated with war.  Of course there are places and cultures which still eat it all, and I’ve noticed some restaurants offering more than the typical menu.
      As far as “miserable lives” of the animals, that depends.  The animals I remember where I grew up had better lives than most people in overcrowded urban centres.  Fresh air, green pastures, yummy whole foods, including grains.  That pig mentioned above, used to get home baked bread soaked in milk (from local cows), which were out all day every day grazing fields – no corn feed.  It makes me crazy when I go to a restaurant and I see “corn-fed” beef high-lighted, as if that’s a selling point.  Cow’s can’t even digest corn.  I don’t eat fast food or eat out often, because I love to cook and monitor what I consume, so when I go out to eat, I’m very picky.  I don’t mind paying more as long as I know what I’m consuming meets my standards.  So the real issue here is that we should focus on responsible farming, make it about quality again, not quantity.  Meat would be more expensive if it was grown the way I remember it, but then people would consume less and appreciate it more.  When I was a kid, there was no such term as “organic”, why?  Because everything was organic.  It’s like the comment above, which says that in Parma, the ham is just called prosciutto, because there is no alternative.  We should respect our food, give it a happy life and not waste any of it.  Schools should teach kids about food, where it comes from, where it should come from, costs, and benefits to responsible farming, not just costs vs benefits.  I was a vegetarian for 6 years, then I went back home and caved in and had some home made sausage, from a home grown pig, and that was the end to my veg days.

    3. Dude, this ain’t the Middle Ages or Grandma Ol’ Farm. There are very  strict rules in Italy when it comes to industrial food production, and nowhere more so than in EmiliaRomagna, where food is its own religion (ever heard about lasagne and “bolognese”?  Bologna? yeah, all invented there). Believe it or not, animal welfare is *extremely* well protected by these rules. Death, for example, has to be as quick and painless as possible; food has to be of a certain standard, animal “families” are to be kept together for months, etc etc. 
      Of course not everyone respects the rules, and some rules are difficult to enforce (especially when they run against religious stuff), but still, animal-rights zealotry is really misplaced in a place like Emilia Romagna.

  10. The D&D gamer will know that this is the secret health level of the map, just before the final battle with the Hydragon AC-10.

  11. Anyone know why the hams on the right have those dark patches which the hams on the left do not have?

    1. I would guess that the ones on the right are further along in the curing process than those on the left and have undergone some step that those on the left haven’t that has changed the way they look.

    2. The “dark patches” are actually just the “Parma” mark (a sort of crown), which means the ham is ready to be sold as Prosciutto di Parma. The ones on the left are either not ready, are going to be sold as generic “prosciutto crudo” without the Parma branding, or have just been branded on the other side ;) 

  12. check out culatello di zibello, far superior product, i’ve been down where they hang the meat there. there’s a unique form of “noble” mould that lives only in that cellar, fanned by a constant moist wind from the po river. it is absolutely delicious but far too expensive for everyday salumi action (€100 a kilo), unless of course you are prince charles, who sends his favourite kind of black pig down there every year for them to turn in to culatello.

  13. Of course, all those porkers are not raised locally. A familiar sight on the roads in this part of Italy are all the trucks bringing in livestock, many of them from the massive industrial factory farms is places like Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Germany. It stretches the definition of a locally produced speciality in my book.

    1. When I was stationed in Italy with the Air Force 28 years ago. I was close to the San Daniele region which was famous for it’s ham. I thought it odd that I never saw any pigs anywhere.

    2. Nope. Pigs for Parma ham have to be raised in the area if you want to call your ham “prosciutto di Parma.” That’s actually one of the good things about the whole Protected Geographical Status thing, you have at least some idea of what you’re eating and where it’s from.

      Edit: Link to the site of the “Parma ham consortium,” explaining what their brand is about:

      They have a high-quality, world-renowned and overpriced product; I think it’s in their own interest to enforce their standards.

      1. Thats interesting and kind of reassuring ! Still strange about all those livestock trucks which I have seen on several different trips over the Brenner heading down towards Parma… I better shut up while I am ahead, otherwise the Parma Ham consortium will set there lawyers on me… its an extraordinary image in any case

    3. Protected labels are not the only thing produced in the area, of course. There’s plenty of run-of-the-mill stuff coming out: cooked ham, salami, bologna/mortadella, etc etc etc. The strictest rules apply to protected labels only, everything else is fair game (well, safety standards are incredibly high across the board anyway, if there’s one thing Italians really don’t mess with, it’s food).

  14. I recall a Gordon Ramsay European episode where a stated vegetarian was fed a pizza covered with Parma Ham and when it was discovered all Chef Ramsay did was joke about it as the defiled man made his way to the door.  It was sad.

  15. Having eaten both types of ham, I have a (very polemic for the Italians) opinion: the best Parma prosciutto is as good as a regular Serrano Spanish ham. The problem with prosciutto is the type of pig: large white pigs are used to make this hams. In Spain there is a fantastic pig called Ibérico and when it’s fed with acorns, the ham produced with its legs is incomparable. It melts in your mouth and its taste is incredible.

    Saying this, I have to admit that I like prosicutto di Parma, too, but I prefer a good Spanish Ibérico ham.

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