We drove into the city of Parma on a Sunday and almost all the shops were closed – apart from the tourism information centre, a tobacco shop, a gelateria, and a couple of bars.
It seemed only right to have ham for lunch. In the bar we chose, the Parma ham legs hung in the window, and a half leg sat melting on the slicer. I asked for a little taste of ham, enough for one. The chief slicer turned on the machine and began delicately lifting translucent slices onto a round timber board. Then he picked up a darker piece of meat and sliced. And then a salami.
When the board arrived in front of me it came with a chunk of parmigiano and a plate of toast dribbled with olive oil. Enough for a family.
I was confused about the different cuts of ham, so I picked a piece up in each hand and chased the waitress around the bar asking for details. They were both from the back leg, she told me, but had been cured for different lengths of time. I told her I was a pig farmer – trying to excuse my behavior.
With a full stomach we negotiated the roundabouts out of Parma, and headed for the mountains where the ham I had been eating was made.
In the village of Langhirano the five, six, and seven storey factories towered above the stone houses. Their windows were long and narrow – a feature left over from when the mountain air was allowed to flow through the buildings to dry the meat. The signs by the road were over-sized and cartoon-like: jumping and flying pink pigs with chubby, smiling faces.
These factories produce hundreds of thousands of air-dried hams each year that are exported around the world. When I had thought about the brand of Parma ham, I had assumed all the pork legs came from Italian pigs – but it’s just not possible: the hams outrun the farm production.
With our agriturismo hosts Diadorim and Chiara, we visited a smaller factory, Vescovi, in the village of Lagrimone. They used strictly Italian pigs - the closer the farm the better - and showed us the tattoos on the legs.
But does it matter to the consumer where the pork comes from? Or is it the story of the curing process and the history that they are interested in?