The first time I tasted parma ham was in one of those old-fashioned little trattorias that have man-sized pepper mills. It came with melon, unsalted butter and bread. The sweet fattiness, the muted saltiness, the silky texture – it was love at first bite. People now seem to regard parma ham with fruit as a dull and passé ensemble, but I find it hard to resist.
Standing in a curing room recently – a cathedral-like place just outside Parma with hams hanging from the ceiling, a herby, porcine smell in the air – I was in awe at the trouble taken to produce my occasional treat. Parma ham can only be produced in the area around Parma from specific breeds of pig fed on a particular diet. This area produces half of all the prosciutto crudo eaten in Italy, made by 190 firms.
The curing is a reassuringly old-fashioned and simple process. Nothing is added except salt. The maestro salatore – master salter – assesses how much to apply (the meat mustn't lose its sweetness) and how to adjust the temperature and humidity around the ham.
After salting, the ham is washed, then goes through several stages of resting, drying and curing, first in fridges, then in high-windowed rooms and finally dark cellars. Next it is aged for at least a year, after which an inspector checks it by piercing it with a horse-bone needle. Just by smelling the needle he knows whether the ham is good enough.
Next it is fire-branded with a crown, the mark of parma ham, then sold, or aged further. In Parma I had a plateful of hams (more than the three little slices I allow myself at home) that had been aged for 18, 24 and 36 months.
When it comes to eating I would go the way of the Italians and not do much with it. The most purist producers I met said they didn't even like it with fruit as they think it detracts from the flavour. (Though I have come round to thinking it's much better with a perfect ripe pear than melon.) There are cooked dishes where its distinctive flavour still sings out – it's lovely tossed with fresh pasta and a lemon- infused cream – but simple assemblies are best, and salads are glorious.
Despite loving its flavour, I had always been a little less than generous with parma ham – it is expensive, after all – but having seen the perfectionism with which it is produced, I feel differently. Food that comes with this much care is priceless.
Simple and clean, this dish works by pairing the sweet fattiness of parma ham with the bitterness of chicory leaves. Ripe figs are also lovely in the mix, when in season.
• 2 heads white chicory
• 2 heads red chicory
• 4 just-ripe pears
• juice of 1 lemon
• 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (fruity rather than grassy)
• 12 slices parma ham
• 1 tbsp hazelnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Pull the chicory apart and discard the core. Halve and core the pears and cut into slices about 5mm thick. Immediately put the slices into half of the lemon juice and coat to prevent discoloration.
Arrange the pear and chicory on a platter. Drizzle on extra-virgin olive oil and the rest of the lemon juice, and season. Tear the ham into strips and lay over the fruit and leaves. Scatter on the hazelnuts. Drizzle with more oil and grind on some black pepper.
Classics are classics for a reason – this is an excellent dish for when there's just two of you. It is quickly made but is a treat.
• 2 veal or pork escalopes, each 175g (6oz)
• 2 slices parma ham
• 2 sage leaves
• about ½ tbsp plain flour
• 2 tsp olive oil
• 15g unsalted butter
• 200ml dry marsala
Put each escalope between pieces of greaseproof paper and, using a rolling-pin, bash to a thickness of 5mm. Season. Wrap a slice of ham round each escalope and lay or pin a sage leaf on top. Dust the escalopes both sides with flour.
Heat the oil and butter in a large frying-pan. Cook the veal on a medium heat for two minutes on each side, the pork for three-and- a-half minutes, until golden and cooked through. Remove and keep warm. Add the marsala to the pan and bubble it over a high heat until thickened and reduced by half. Taste for seasoning and serve poured over the escalopes.
This is one of my favourite dishes in the world. When Franco Taruschio was chef-owner of the Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny, in Wales, I used to go there just to eat it. This is based on his recipe – I don't use truffles as I have never been able to afford them, but if you can, do. Since I've had children I rarely make my own pasta, but it is worth it for this.
• 2 whole eggs and 4 yolks
• 250g farina '0' or plain flour
• 1 tsp salt
• 450g fresh mushrooms
• 30g dried wild mushrooms
• 25g butter, plus more for greasing
• olive oil
• 2 tbsp chopped parsley
• 300g parma ham, torn into strips
• 150g grated parmesan, plus extra for serving
• truffle oil, to serve
• 1.2 litres full-fat milk
• ½ onion
• 2 bay leaves
• 8 peppercorns
• 50g butter
• 75g plain flour
• 200ml double cream
Lightly beat the two whole eggs and keep the four yolks to hand in a separate bowl. Put the flour into another bowl and sprinkle on the salt. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the whole eggs. Bring the flour into the well with your hands, mixing it with the eggs. Gradually add the yolks, until it forms a ball.
Put the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead for six minutes. It should be smooth and slightly elastic. Wrap in clingfilm and leave for two hours to rest.
Slice the fresh mushrooms and cover the dried ones with boiling water. Melt half of the butter, add ½ tbsp olive oil and sauté half of the fresh mushrooms and season.
Remove the first lot to a large bowl and add the rest of the butter and a bit more oil (you may need to do three batches). Drain the dried mushrooms and add to the second batch of fried mushrooms with the parsley. The mushrooms should be coloured and the liquid they exude evaporated. Mix in the ham.
Heat the milk with the onion, bay leaves and peppercorns until boiling. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes. Strain. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan, add the flour and blend well.
Cook for two minutes, then take off the heat and add the milk. Start by adding a small drop and beat well to prevent lumps. Put the pan back on the heat and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. The mixture will thicken. Simmer for three minutes. Stir in the cream, and the parsley and mushroom mixture. Heat gently. Season.
Separate the pasta into three balls. Adjust a pasta machine to its widest setting and put the dough through six times. Continue to put the pasta through, moving down a setting at a time to the thinnest setting. You should have long thin sheets. Lay each sheet on tea towels and leave for 30 minutes. Cut into 12cm squares.
Butter an ovenproof dish measuring 20?x?30cm and boil the pasta in salted water for four minutes. Cook four squares at a time, assembling the dish as you go. Start with a layer of pasta, then sauce, a sprinkling of parmesan, etc, finishing with a layer of sauce and parmesan.
Bake in an oven preheated to 200°C/gas 6 for 20 minutes.
Drizzle with truffle oil and serve with more parmesan alongside.
© Stella magazine/The Sunday Telegraph
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