But we have discovered, in a comprehensive tasting of Parma hams on the British market, that many British retailers cut off a large portion of the fat before packaging it. They do this in the misguided belief that they are pursuing health guidelines on our behalf.
What next? To reduce salt levels which contribute to raising blood pressure, will they now produce salt-free caviar and entirely remove its flavour? Or replace the saturated fat in fois gras with hydrogenated sunflower oil? It wouldn't taste any good, but what a health bonus.
Our puritan attitude to fat bewilders Italians. While they eat one of the healthiest diets in Europe (plenty of pasta, rice, vegetables and fruit, and olive oil instead of animal fat) they would never dream of destroying an item which is the height of luxury. For nothing quite arouses their passions, except perhaps the white truffle, so much as Parma ham. At its best, it is one of the world's finest gourmet treats.
The hams are taken from large, mature pigs and are dry-salted and airdried for 16 to 18 months, even 24, to achieve a sweet, ripe maturity. The ham is at its best when carved into paper-thin, rosepink slices together with its creamywhite skirt. It should taste sweet, salty, moist and succulent, the lean and the fat filling the mouth with a complex and satisfying sensation.
Parma ham needs no accompaniment. To sprinkle it with black pepper is as unnecessary as putting tabasco on an oyster; though to serve it with a slice of perfectly ripe melon is reasonable, the scent of the melon echoing a ripeness in the mature ham. And the juice provides an instant antidote to the thirst aroused by the ham's saltiness.
All gourmets agree that Parma ham served at the peak of perfection is inimitable. But since it costs from pounds 17 a pound upwards, anything less than perfection is going to be a waste of money.
How is one to tell which is which? With the help of the catering magazine Inside Hotels, we tracked down the best Italian hams in Britain from Parma, and also the prosciutto crudo (literally raw ham) from smaller but no less distinguished producers. For comparison, we also presented a quintet of non-Italian air-dried hams: Bayonne from France, Pata Negra and Jamon Serrano Alta Montano from Spain and, from the UK, Denhay and Ashdown dry-cured hams.
The tasting took place at the InterContinental Hotel in London. Our highly critical, 16-strong judging panel included leading Italian cookery writer Anna del Conte; Antonio Carluccio, restaurateur and broadcaster; restaurateur Franco Taruschio from the Walnut Tree Inn in Wales; Susanna Gelmetti of Italian Cookery Weeks; Alberico Penati, owner of the exclusive Mayfair club Harry's Bar; Rosie Gray, owner-chef of Hammersmith's River Cafe, which pioneered Italian regional cuisine; Carlo Magello, managing director of Gucci; Peter Kromberg, patron-chef of Le Souffle restaurant; Sue Cloke, Harvey Nichols food buyer; Lady Elizabeth Anson of Party Planners, the society caterers; and Lisa Barnard, editor of Inside Hotels, with deputy editor Fiona Sims.
Seldom can a load of old ham have been exposed to such penetrating scrutiny. The best of the Italian hams passed with flying colours, but half were not considered worthy of their great reputation. The non-Italian hams were generally thought tough and dry (with one exception) but it should be remembered that the panel was looking for the silky smoothness of the Parma style.
The best hams were mostly those cut from the bone, showing that Parma ham did not lend itself to pre-slicing and packaging. All the Italian tasters commented on the absence of fat. 'Disappointing,' said Antonio Carluccio, 'the fat is the best part.' Anna del Conte agreed: 'You must have it to balance texture and taste.' In any case, she believes there is very little cholesterol in Parma ham, a consequence of the long air-drying process.
Considering that the production of Parma ham is strictly controlled, like a French wine appellation, the standard of some was disturbingly low, said Alberico Penati: 'If this is allowed to go on it could damage the name of Parma ham. Who is to blame? Not the producer, surely. The poorer quality has to be due to pressure from the importers trying to hold prices down.'
Rosie Gray counts herself a major user of the delicacy, getting through two whole hams a week. She was sniffy about the pre-cut, pre-packed versions, and annoyed that so much of the fat had been removed. Franco Taruschio, who has just published Leaves from the Walnut Tree, was thrilled by the best hams, having cured and dried his own hams in Breconshire. 'It's very difficult to cure a ham as well as this. I don't do it any more, it's easier to do bresaola, the dried beef.'
The tasting panel agreed that the outright winner by far was Negroni Parma ham, carved from the bone. The best from a supermarket was Sainsbury's Genuine Parma (what does that make their prime Parma then, not genuine?) coming in fifth, a tremendous achievement in this company. Italians and non-Italians on the panel were generally agreed on rating the Italian hams, but it was no surprise that the Italians gave lower marks to the non- Italian hams. Overall, they rated Pata Negra (Spain) sixth, its texture being rather leathery compared with the silky Parma hams, but one taster, Anna del Conte, gave it her highest mark, admiring its porky, complex flavour. (Pata Negra is available from Harvey Nichols, tel: 071-235 5000). Denhay air-dried ham (from Bridport, Dorset, tel: 0308 422770) and Bayonne ham (France, from Harrods Food Hall, tel: 071-730 1234) tied as runners-up, ahead of Ashdown old matured ham (from Ashdown Smokers of Corney, Cumbria, tel: 0229 718339) and Jamon Serrano Alta Montano (Spain, imported by Supercaro, tel: 081-519 4252).
This is the order in which the judges placed the Italian hams, with a summary of the majority of tasters' opinions. Although non-Italian hams are excluded from this list, in fact only one, Pata Negra, showed well and would have made it into sixth place. Prices vary from shop to shop, but expect to pay from pounds 4.20 to pounds 5.50 a quarter for the best Parma ham.
1 NEGRONI PARMA HAM Beautiful colour, silky, excellent, well-balanced, sweet perfume, subtle, delicious, complex. From specialist Italian shops and delicatessens at around pounds 5 per quarter, carved from the bone. Head office: Pietro Negroni, tel: 071-837 0426.
2 CARPEGNA PROSCIUTTO SAN LEO Silky, salty, succulent, mature, agreeable hint of the farmyard. From Italian speciality stores at around pounds 4.50 a quarter, carved from the bone. Importer: Guidetti Fine Foods, tel: 081-460 3727.
3 MARCHIATO VILLANI PARMA HAM Lovely pink colour, intense clean flavour, sweet, succulent. From good stores at about pounds 4.20 a quarter. Importer: Alvini, tel: 081-880 2525.
4 GRAN RISERVA SAN DANIELE Soft, sweet, moist and subtle, if a little too salty. At around pounds 4.25 a quarter from Italian stores. Importer: Ciborio, tel: 081-578 4388.
5 SAINSBURY'S GENUINE PARMA HAM S44 Good creamy texture, quite sweet, rather salty, strong rich flavour. Sainsbury's selected stores at pounds 2.69 for 70g ( pounds 4.70 a quarter).
6 CASA ROMAGNOLI PROSCIUTTO CRUDO Light, fresh, balanced, good aftertaste. From good Italian stores at around pounds 4.20 a quarter. Importer: Galbani, tel: 081-673 7114.
7 PROSCIUTTO DI PARMA CASONI Good, sweet, delicate, moist, herby character. From Italian stores at around pounds 4.20 a quarter. Importer: Ciborio, tel: 081 578 4388.
8 FINE ITALIAN FOODS DRY- CURED PARMA HAM Greasy, chewy, rather salty. From Italian stores at around pounds 4.20 a quarter. Importer: Fine Italian Foods, tel: 081-671 6622.
9 TESCO PARMA HAM Not-fully- cured taste. Tesco selected stores. pounds 2.69 for 70g ( pounds 3.75 a quarter).
10 SAINSBURY'S PRIME PARMA HAM Dry and salty, thickly cut, tasted under-cured. Sainsbury's selected stores at pounds 2.65 a quarter.
11 SAFEWAY GENUINE PARMA HAM Very salty, tasted of the
packet. Safeway selected stores. pounds 2.69 for 70g ( pounds 3.75 a quarter).
12 ST MICHAEL GENUINE PARMA HAM Dry, strong flavour. Could suit cooked dishes. Marks & Spencer. pounds 2.99 for 70g ( pounds 5.23 a quarter).
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