Discover the traditions behind the age-old & most renowned Italian food with Michela Conti in this Q&A.
Meet Michela Conti and let her give you a tutorial on the traditions behind tasty Italian Proscuitto di Parma of Emilia Romagna! Two hundred years ago, Michela’s ancestors moved from a valley near the Baganza River to Valle di Castrignano, a village in the hills surrounding the city of Parma in northern Italy’s state of Emilia Romagna. In 1814, Michela’s forebearers bought land and built a farm in Castrignano, which today has 69 residents.
The village’s name comes from Castrum Regnanum, a castle built in the eighth century by the Lombards, a Germanic tribe who ruled Italy from 568 to 774, and vallum, which refers to an old Roman army camp near the town, whose remains are still identifiable.
The lives of the Conti family centered on agriculture and livestock for more than 150 years. But in 1968, two Conti brothers, both in their early twenties, decided to create a new opportunity for the family–by investing in an ancient tradition that had long been practised in the Parma region. During the winter, when the pace slowed in the country and it was too cold to work outside, Afro (the nick-name for Aufrodisio – a name that originated from Aphrodite) and Claudio Conti decided to learn the art and science of seasoning ham from local craftsmen in the nearby village of Langhirano. Upon mastering the time-honored techniques, with the support of their father Giovanni, they decided to expand their agricultural business and become producers of the specialty Proscuitto di Parma - traditional Parma ham
Prosciutto di Parma dates back thousands of years to Roman times, when, in 100 B.C., Cato the “Censor” first mentioned the extraordinary taste of the ham cured by the aromatic fresh air around the town of Parma. The name Prosciutto comes from the Latin word for “deprived of all liquid.”
Prosciutto di Parma is said to be the most recognized brand of typical Italian wine and food products. Chianti is second, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is third. I think you’ll enjoy this education from Michela on what goes into making one of the best-known foods of a country renown for its gastronomic delights!
Meg: Italian cuisine is world famous and it seems a reason it is so extraordinary is the care taken to ensure all the ingredients are fresh and of the highest quality. As someone who produces a product that is a staple of the Italian table, can you share your thoughts on what makes Italian food so special?
Michela: I think that Italian foods are special because the dishes are easy and simple – made with only few ingredients and steps– and they are based on recipes of very long tradition that haven’t changed. We use raw materials of the highest quality and the teaching of parents and grandparents to get the best tastes and flavors.
For example, I have scenes in my mind of my grandmother cooking for the family during Christmas time. Everything is made as her mother did when she was a child–the same typical dishes, the same ingredients fresh and natural; nothing is changed. Also, the preparation process and cooking times must be respected–even if today we have lots of short cuts.
Meg: Emilia Romagna is acknowledged within Italy as having the country’s best food and is known as being the “home” of prosciutti di parma, the famed traditional parma ham, as well as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar and tortellini, among other dishes. Why do you think the region has such great food?
Michela: Emilia Romagna has many famous foods maybe because in this region we have the sea, the plains, the mountains and the hills. These different kinds of environments are home to different natural ingredients and inspired a large variety of typical foods.
The most important natural condition to producing Prosciutto di Parma is certainly the unique and peculiar climate of our area 30 km south of the town of Parma. The air that dries the hams is clean and cool as we are in the hills (550 meters in altitude) and not far from the Tyrrhenian Sea.
An artisanal business built on the principles of local roots, family traditions and the lessons of the past.
Meg: Tell me about the origins of Salumificio Conti and your family’s history in the business.
Michela: Salumificio Conti was founded in 1968, and production started in 1970. My father and my uncle worked with my grandfather on the family farm; but during the winter there was only a little work to do, so they started helping in some ham factories in the nearby village of Langhirano. In 1968 they decided to start their own business and built the factory and Salumificio Conti has been making Parma Hams since 1970. Then my father and his brother split up, and my father kept on managing the factory with my mother, and then also with me and my two sisters.
My father died 20 months ago. He really was the pillar of the factory. He had over 40 years of experience and always knew what to do in every situation. He oversaw the production, especially the carving, salting and all the processes related to the first seven months of the hams being cured. Moreover he supervised the refrigerated rooms and all the systems. Because he was on “first line” in the production, he made arrangements with slaughter houses to select raw material of highest quality, and in general he selected the best suppliers of all the ingredients used to make the hams.
When he first became ill in 2012, he needed surgery and after that also convalescence, so looking ahead, he taught me some basic things to “manage” the factory until his return. After a few months, he came back to work and tried to teach me something new every day, with the idea to support each other and work together. I had to learn the job and he had to think of years passing and his eventual retirement, so it was the moment to start the generational change.
Then my father’s disease worsened and he wasn’t able to come to work every day. Despite his poor health, he continued teach me as much as possible, and I started to write down his teachings. When in 2013 the disease turned into cancer, my father understood it was urgent to allow me to manage the working processes and keep on working even without his help. He told me everything that occurred to him, even though sometimes I didn’t even understand the meaning of his words.
In June 2013, he finally left the factory because the pain was increasing, and he died that October. I felt completely lost, both as a daughter and as a worker. My mother is a very strong person, and she didn’t let me and my sisters break down and give up. Together, as a family, we helped each other and went on. Luckily our workers and also the suppliers understood how hard my father’s passing was and helped us in many different ways. Of course, the reason they did is that my father was a good, honest and professional person.
Day by day, as I work, I always learn something new. When challenges occur, I have to face them and I am reminded of the teachings of my father. I realize that some of the advice he gave me that didn’t make sense at the time now has meaning! It’s really hard because I don’t have my guide. But we go on with confidence, and we are very happy to keep on managing this factory, that connects local and family tradition. Today seven members of the family work here: my mother, my sisters, me and three other relatives.
Meg: Can you describe the process involved in making Prosciutto di Parma?
Michela: To make Parma Ham we use only the back legs of Italian pigs that are bred in specific regions in Northern and Central Italy. Tradition calls for leaving the bone during the entire process–only at the end of the ageing do we take it off.
When the fresh legs arrive, first we mark them with a metal seal of the Consortium of Prosciutto di Parma (CPP) that states the month and year the curing process began. Then we carve the meat and fat with a knife to give the ham a beautiful round shape. If it is necessary, we cut a little skin in the upper part to uncover the meat and permit it to receive salt.
Then we massage the hams to prepare the meat to receive salt and also to extract blood from veins. We also scrub the skin of the hams with brushes before salting. Finally, we salt the hams by hand–we know the exactly right quantity for each ham through experience. Two people can salt approximately 480 pieces per hour. Sea salt is the only ingredient allowed in Parma Ham production. The salting process lasts 18-20 days and is done twice: the initial salting, and then after five days we take off that salt and put on new layer of salt for the remainder of the period that the hams cure in refrigerated rooms at temperatures of 0°-3°C.
In the next phase, we take off all the salt and hang on the hams leaving them for 15-20 days in refrigerated rooms (3°-4°C) in which fresh air is circulated–this process allows the heart of the meat dry. Now it’s time to wash hams to clean off crystals of salt that have maybe come out. Then meat is carved around the bone to let it breathe. Next, the hams return into the fridge rooms set to temperatures of 5°-6°C for another three months of simple resting. At the fourth month, the hams are moved upstairs to rooms with higher temperature of 14°-15°C for a part of the process called of pre-ageing, where they rest and dry for three months–this is when the hams develop their unique smell, flavor and taste. In these rooms we take advantage of the unique micro-climate of our area, and any time it is possible we open all the windows, which are narrow and tall in order to let air come in. The natural air – when it’s cool and dry – is an important element in the creation of the Parma Ham and gives them more taste and flavor.
The hams have now been curing for seven months and it’s time to for the last step of the working process, which consists of covering the meat with a kind of paste called “sugna” (made with pork fat, rice flour, salt and pepper) that keeps the meat soft while it ages. Once the sugna is applied, we hang on the hams on the old wooden frames and leave them to age until they have been curing for one year. At that time, a quality check is done by inspectors of the Consortium of Prosciutto di Parma and then we fire brand the hams with the “ducal Crown” of the CPP. That brand is the final guarantee that the ham is a true Parma Ham and ready to be eaten.
This final quality check is a strange and amazing moment! In order to know if a ham is good or not, a unique and strange instrument is used, a kind of needle made from horse bone is inserted into five “critical” points in the ham and then smelled. The reason the horse bone is used is that it is the only material that will retain the smell of the ham. It has been used for years–there has yet to be another material that achieves the same function as successfully.
Meg: Salumificio Conti is a member of a prosciutti di parma consortium. Can you explain the qualifications required to be a member of the consortium and what being a member means for the company?
Michela: To be a member of the Consortium you have to strictly follow the rules and regulations about working processes, raw materials, ingredients, location of the factory, health and hygiene authorizations, and suitable rooms for the working processes.
Being a member means safeguarding the traditions of a natural, healthy and genuine product. Parma Ham has a story of over 2000 years, and with the CPP that lineage is guaranteed and recognized in many countries all over the world–and that means that our work and our care for the product are recognized too.
Meg: We visited during a massive heat wave and talked about how the changing weather patterns are affecting the ham production. Can you explain that?
Michela: Over time, there have been work on the genetics of animals to assure a quality trend–both to improve meat and to help working processes. However, the changing weather and climate affects the pigs–and everything else on earth–and making them suffer. For example when it is too hot they grow slowly and every step is stressful. Also pollution makes a difference, because even if the farms are located in favorable areas, the feedings are affected.
Meg: When you first started giving tours ten years ago, you had about ten tourists a month visit, and now there are about 400-500 who come every month. Can you explain why you think there has been such a surge in interest?
Michela: I think that today people are interested in “food culture.” Everybody pays attention to what they are eating and searches for healthy foods. It’s common now that people want to know how their food is made to be sure that it is genuine. People enjoy discovering the history and seem to appreciate the product more from learning about the production process. For example, in our factory, visitors can see that most of the work is done by hand and that man makes the difference, not machines.
Interested in Italian traditions? Learn about another Italian ancient custom being kept alive in Emilia-Romagna!