Parma: Shelf-preservation society

Home of ham, cheese and pasta, Parma is the centre of the Italian food universe. Caroline Stacey paid a visit
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The city has its name branded on every one of its finest and most famous hams. The best-known hard cheese on the planet (and the only one eaten in space by astronauts) takes its name from here. It's the home of the world's largest pasta maker. It's even known for its crystallised violets.

The city has its name branded on every one of its finest and most famous hams. The best-known hard cheese on the planet (and the only one eaten in space by astronauts) takes its name from here. It's the home of the world's largest pasta maker. It's even known for its crystallised violets.

One of the richest cities in Italy, with the attendant record for divorce and the lowest birth rate, Parma is in a unique position. Partly through geography and tradition, partly by accident it has become the centre of Italy's alimentary industry.

Ham and cheese have always been natural neighbours; pigs grew fat on the whey left over from cheesemaking. Parmigiano-Reggiano, like Parma ham, is a protected appellation and may only come from a designated area. The ham is all from the village of Langhirano, where the climate and humidity are ideal for drying the meat. The huge sheds – there's nothing very picturesque about curing ham – are all lined up in the same direction, so the mountain breeze can waft through the windows.

But the industry has grown so, with 200 producers making enough ham to account for 40 per cent of all the prosciutto sold in Italy, that the animals are no longer reared nearby. Large White, Duroc and Landrace pigs come from 5,500 nominated breeding farms and 180 slaughter houses in the north and centre of Italy. The hams are moved mechanically through each stage and temperature zone, corresponding to the seasons during which hams were made in farmhouses after the autumn pig killing. But they're still made only with pork, salt, air and time. Each one will have been salted and massaged by hand, rubbed with fat to seal the exposed flesh, and passed as perfect all the way after a horse bone needle has been inserted and inspected. Only then is it stamped with the Parma crown. In the 12 months minimum it takes for pork to become Parma ham each leg loses almost a quarter of its weight.

Parmigiano-Reggiano from the 568 member dairies takes even longer before it's ready. The milk arriving twice a day is churned and heated in copper cauldrons, before the solidified curds are lifted by hand, wrapped in cloth, pressed and given a saline bath. The milk isn't pasteurised. There's no need when a cheese is matured for at least two years, the progressively darkening rinds indicating how long each wheel has been aged. Every day in a typical dairy around 30 cylinders, each one made of 550 litres of milk, join others in the ageing rooms, stacked up in cathedral-like soaring columns.

Cheese and ham are two of the oldest forms of preserved food. The best become more valuable the older they are. In Parma, pasta has joined Parmesan and prosciutto as the third preserved ingredient. It too is designed to keep, travel and convince us that Italy produces some of the most desirable things to eat in the world.

Pasta was first dried commercially in the 13th century. Palermo, not Parma, was where it all began. Naples and Genoa followed; the hot breezes of the South did the job. Down here pasta is made only with durum wheat semolina; the grain needs dry conditions and grows only in the south of Italy (and now France, Greece and the US). Before food travelled, durum wheat didn't reach northern Italy, where pasta was made with softer wheat strengthened with egg. The South is where artisan pasta plants have traditionally made pasta for local consumption. Even now egg pasta, such as tagliatelle, isn't eaten in southern Italy.

The machinery for drying and making pasta on a mass scale was first developed at the end of the 19th century at around the time the Barilla business consisted of an artisan pasta shop in Parma. Three generations later, the paternalistic, art-collecting Barilla family owns one of the biggest companies in Italy with headquarters and a factory on the outskirts of Parma. It makes almost half the pasta sold in Italy.

The dedication to pasta-related science and art is extraordinary. There are two huge production plants, both of which look like the baddie's lair out of a James Bond film. One for durum wheat pasta, where juddering sheaves of bucatoni, a noisy cascade of sorpresi and the stately progression of golden fringes of spaghetti are squeezed out and dried, day and night. The other plant produces egg pasta, which the Barilla business first began making by hand.

In labs on the campus-like Barilla industrial estate, pasta is subjected to exhaustive tests. Gluten, the protein in semolina that gives pasta its strength, is measured on a glutograph. The pasta is also tested for starch release – the less starch it releases the better it tastes and the less slippery it is. They measure the individual shapes to one tenth of a millimetre. There's even an electronic stomach that replicates what happens as pasta is digested.

The painstakingly well-preserved foods of Parma travel well. You can eat the delicious ham, cheese and pasta anywhere in the world – or even in space – in as perfect a condition as when it left the city.

Comments