Meat doesn’t bother me. I don’t eat it, but I’m perfectly comfortable around it. I’m okay visiting pig farms, and butchers, and even Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco, a cured pork (prosciutto) packing house in Modena, Italy.
That time was fine. We toured the sleek steel industrial packing house and learned about the region’s centuries-old tradition of salt-curing and aging pork. It was really interesting, up until the end when our host, third-generation prosciutto di Modena maker, Valeria Nini, offered us a delicate slice of her 14 month aged ham.
“No, thanks,” I declined. “I’m vegetarian.”
She gasped. “No! I’m sorry, I… I didn’t know!”
(Apologizing, of course, for sharing the art and beauty of her life’s work.)
I told her it was fine. I’m curious about meat and interested in learning about all manner of food traditions. She was still anxious, thinking she had somehow offended these American bloggers. She brightened when I said, “he’ll eat it,” pointing at my husband who was grinning ear to ear.
The Nini prosciutto factory was founded in 1910 by Valeria’s grandfather in a time before refrigeration when salt was the best means of long-term food preservation. In fact, salt had been used to cure meat in this region since Roman times.
Modena and neighboring Parma, are home to two different Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.P.) prosciutto traditions ensuring the region’s highest quality meat is produced exactly as it has been for generations.
The process takes 14 months from start to finish, starting with the lengthy salting and drying process, onto the greasing (when a hydrating cream of lard, salt and spices is rubbed into the skin), the testing and the final certification. Over the course of the aging period, the meat loses one quarter of it’s weight, concentrating the flavor.
Even after following this careful process, about 1 in 100 legs are rejected. Valeria showed us how they test the quality by checking the smell.
She poked a slender skewer, carved from porous horse bone, into three crucial spots in the meat. She let us smell the flesh of one she had marked for disposal, and I could tell it seemed off. The rejected legs are sold to chemical companies who melt it into organic fertilizer.
After the final inspection, the thighs are fire-branded with the regional seal and mark of the packing house, a signature of authenticity (the Nini factory is noted by “PM49”).
It is an interesting tradition and I was eager to learn all I could. And take pictures!
The patterns and shadows were like nothing I’d ever seen.
For a split second, I considered the shadowy refrigerated rooms to be like something from a scary movie.
But then I snapped out of it. It was beautiful how much careful attention went into crafting this food.
And funny, when I realized I was riding in an elevator with about 30 porcine thighs. When will I ever have the chance to do that again!
As for the ham? Kevin loved it. It was sweet and light. And fattier than his other favorite cured meat. Even a vegetarian can respect that!
For a more cinematic view of the prosciutto-making process, check out this video by the Prosciutto di Modena producer’s consortium:
Thanks to Tourism Emilia Romagna for helping me arrange this tour. I’m sorry I freaked out Ms. Nini.