On scanning through photos of Parma on Google Images, as anyone faced with a trip there would, I was struck by something strange. Alongside the glorious opera house and endless butter-coloured buildings were dotted photographs of what can only be described as ham caves – thousands upon thousands of legs lining walls and ceilings, hanging in wait at the end of a long, hard cure, lit from above like some kind of hammy Christmas grotto. Where were these places? How could I get there?
A month later, I found myself on a minibus in Italy with a number of other ham-enthused journalists for the Prosciutto di Parma festival – yes, a festival of ham – on a journey to Pio Tosini, a company that has been producing Parma ham since 1905. After several days in Parma learning about how ham (and cheese) and culture are intertwined with the city’s history, from the sculptures in the baptistery depicting the winter pig slaughter to the great Parma ham legs and Parmesan wheels that adorned every deli and restaurant, it was now time to get geeky and see how this sweetly nutty, melt-in-the-mouth ham was made.
Driving up into the hills of Langhirano was a sweet relief, with gentle breezes proving a tonic to the intense mugginess of Parma itself, which sits in the river Po valley and as such collates warm, damp air. As we would learn from our guide Giovanni Bianchi (the grandson of founder Ferrante Tosini) this dry, continual breeze that rolls down from the Apennine mountains is what makes this area so perfect for the production of Parma ham, said to have been made in this region since Roman times.