Singing for your supper with Parma Ham
Recently I have been travelling virtually around the culinary hotspots of the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy thanks to a series of cook-alongs with some of the country’s iconic foods. This week was my chance to visit Parma, home to Prosciutto di Parma (PDO) which is produced in the hills around this town. The unique weather conditions of the area have made it possible to produce this renowned ham over centuries. Having a PDO means that every stage of production must take part in Parma, even the slicing of the ham which we buy in UK supermarkets is carried out there.
Ageing a ham is a complex affair and every leg of Prosciutto di Parma is quality-checked during its minimum maturation period of one year. Some hams are aged for up to three years. . Once it has met with approval – a horse bone needle is inserted into five points in the leg and maturation is checked by smell – the ham is fire branded with its 5-point Ducal Crown. Look out for this on the packaging to ensure you are buying the certified product.
Parma ham is 100% natural, the ingredients are Italian pork legs and sea salt with air and time being the other secrets. There are no nasty additives. Nitrates and nitrites are banned by the Parma Ham specifications. While Parma Ham has a beautiful white fat, it is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, the good stuff. It is protein-rich and easily digestible.
The cook-along was a partnership between the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma and Clodagh McKenna, a well-known food writer whose new cookbook, Clodagh’s Weeknight Kitchen, was published earlier this year. McKenna, who set up Slow Food in Ireland, has spent a lot of time in Italy and has adapted two of the recipes in her lovely cookbook to showcase how Parma Ham can be added to a dish and take it to a higher level of flavour. What I like about this approach, as far as family cooking goes, is that McKenna has taken two vegetarian recipes and added the Parma Ham. This is very versatile as one can keep the recipes vegetarian if like me you have non-meat eaters in the household while adding the delicious ham for those who eat it.
The evening began with tasting notes. Parma Ham is a sensory experience – the taste is balanced between sweet and salty, the aroma should be mildly musty with hints of hazelnuts, spices and butter.
Most travellers to Italy will have enjoyed the pure joy of a summer melon with a few slices of Parma Ham draped elegantly over the fruit. Sat on a piazza or overlooking the sea on a summer’s day with this simple dish for lunch one experiences a moment of bliss. Yet there are many other ways to enjoy this supremely versatile product.
McKenna prepared two simple dishes in her farmhouse kitchen. It was very atmospheric with light provided by candles and lamps. Unfortunately, this low light does not make for great filming conditions for a cook-along, the cooking was obscured by an awkwardly placed candle. That said, it strikes me that some cook-alongs are more about having a fun evening than taking one’s cooking skills to the next level. We certainly learned all sorts of fun facts about McKenna’s hens and life on the farm.
The first dish – creamed mushrooms on toast with Parma Ham – might sound a bit simple for a cook-along, but my goodness, when I opened the delivery box I found a selection of the most beautiful mix of mushrooms. Sauteed in butter and olive oil along with chopped shallots and garlic, the aroma was sublime. To finish off this rich dish, some lemon juice and zest was added along with double cream and tarragon. Served on slices of toasted sourdough, the cherry on the top was Parma Ham which began to melt into the hot mushroom sauce. Never mind the rain beating down outside, when I ate the leftovers the following day, it was the best lunch dish any person working from home could wish to produce.
After this dish was complete, McKenna filled the time by treating her guests to a song and dance routine in her kitchen. I don’t know whether her cook-along videos always include a little impromptu entertainment or whether she had been enjoying the vino, but she shimmied about, singing loudly to That’s Amore while throwing her head back and lowering slices of Parma Ham into her mouth.
This seemed to be a prelude to the next dish which McKenna calls Pasta Amore which is traditionally known as cacio e pepe, a mix of butter, cheese and black pepper. Because it is so simple it is also important to get the proportions right – it needs a lot of black pepper and cheese to balance. Cook the spaghetti or linguini al dente and add to a pan of melted butter with lots of freshly ground black pepper and a cup of the water in which the pasta was cooked. Swirl to mix the pasta with the buttery sauce, add extra butter and heaps of grated parmesan and pecorino. This is an iconic dish. To take it to an extra level, McKenna added Parma Ham, snipped into small pieces and a handful of flat-leaf parsley. It is a most satisfying dishes, the kind often described as a hug. It is very quick to make and could easily become a staple, go-to meal at the end of a busy day. I would follow it up with a fresh salad as it is very rich.
Cacio e pepe pasta with Parma Ham makes a quick and delicious pasta dish with cheese and black pepper
- 500 grams linguine, spaghetti or other long pasta shape
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter cubed
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 200 grams Parmesan cheese finely grated
- 100 grams Pecorino cheese finely grated
- sea salt
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Season with salt and add the pasta. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a cup of the pasta cooking water.
Over a medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan. Add the ground pepper and cook for a minute, swirling the pan.
Add half of the reserved pasta cooking water and bring to a simmer. Stir in the drained pasta and the remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add the grated Parmesan. Stir and toss the cheese with the pasta using a tongs. when the cheese has melted add the grated Pecorino, stirring and tossing again until the cheese melts. The pasta will now be coated with the sauce.
Serve with an extra grating of cheese.
If you would like to include Parma Ham in this recipe, snip 8 slices of Parma Ham, crisp them in a hot pan and add to the sauce.
Looking for something different? Try our Potato and Parma Ham Gratin