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Italian pig farming, especially in central and northern areas, differs significantly from that of other European countries. In Italy a pig is bred which is largely used for the production of cured meats, in particular high quality hams. In the rest of Europe, however, pigs are slaughtered at weights of less than 100 kg and are selected to be sold as fresh meat: in these animals a high percentage of lean cuts is appreciated.
Italian pork is mainly destined for the sausage industry, which transforms its meats into high quality seasoned products. To this end, the meat must be mature, must have a high capacity to retain the juices, be free of odors and unusual flavors and have a suitable fat content which, both during the maturing processes and during cooking, allows it to develop of the desired aromas. An excessively lean pig tends to give a product that during the maturing phase loses too much water and becomes dry and salty. On the other hand, too fat animals provide fat / lean proportions unsuitable for manufacturing processes with results lower than the expectations of consumers. These peculiarities of the Italian pig derive from specific breeding techniques, with particular reference to the genetics, feeding, age and weight of the slaughtered animals. Italy typically directs its pig production towards a heavy animal which is therefore typically called heavy.
The morphology of the ideal animal must satisfy precise conditions: having a large size, having skin without pigmentation and white bristles. The structure must be compact: the trunk is not too long, but deep and wide, cylindrical in shape, the musculature must be abundant, the skeleton and the limbs robust but not coarse, the back-lumbar line must be straight or slightly arched, the muscular shoulders adhering to the trunk which must not be excessively developed. They are considered suitable animals with large and fleshy loins, well welded to the rump, which in turn must be long, straight, wide, not sloping, nor inclined, with robust tail attached at the top.
Once the suitable pig has been bred and selected, the most important stage is slaughter. Each operation that is part of this process affects the quality and quantity of meat and, consequently, the revenues obtainable from the sale of the cuts. The slaughtering process is made up of a series of operations which start the day before the animals were slaughtered and end with the chilling of the cuts obtained from the half-carcasses. During the slaughtering process, unsuitable or incorrect operations can cause the death of pigs prior to slaughtering, weight loss of the carcass, waste of the rind, muscles, blood vessels and bones. Furthermore, a deterioration in the quality of the meat can occur up to the appearance of very serious defects.
The characteristics that contribute to determining the quality of the meats can be divided into hygienic-sanitary, biological and technological. The hygienic-sanitary quality, that is the safety of use, is obviously the essential requirement. Fortunately, this aspect is easily verifiable and objectively assessable. The nutritional and organoleptic quality instead constitute the biological quality requirements and are linked to the need and pleasure of eating. The first is easily quantifiable through chemical analysis, while the organoleptic one, deriving from personal tastes, can only be defined in broad terms. As far as the needs of the processing deli meat industry are concerned, the technological properties, which concern the color, the consistency, the ability to interact with the water, the marbling and the degree of salt absorption, acquire a decisive importance.
Technologically suitable pork must have a uniform light red color, firm texture and a non-aqueous cut surface. The consistency is linked to the quantity of muscle and connective tissue and their composition; when the meat is not very mature (young animals) they have a poor consistency. The best meats are those capable of retaining and binding water. One of the most decisive factors of judgment for the deli meat processing industry is also the weight of the cuts obtained from the slaughter.
The different types of cured meats are obtained from precise anatomical parts of the carcass, that is, from what remains of the animal's body after the removal of blood, digestive system, bladder, heart, respiratory system, spleen and liver. The carcasses divided into halves are subjected to sectioning, an operation by which the various parts for the different types of processing are separated. The methods of sectioning the carcass vary considerably from one geographical area to another and according to the destination of the various products. From the head you can get the pillow, triangular in shape, corresponding to the region of the throat, cheeks and part of the neck. From the other muscle masses and from the same pillow, when it is not used as such, lean and fatty meats as well as rinds for zamponi, cotechini, soprassate are obtained. When the head is removed, the cup, or capocollo, the shoulders for seasoning or cooked ham, are obtained from the front including the shoulder, or, when not used as a whole piece, the shoulder provides meat and mince for the manufacture of salami, in addition to the characteristic wrapping of the zampone. The raw material for the manufacture of seasoned loin and meats chosen for sausages are obtained from the complete rack. Most of the meat to be eaten fresh comes from the complete rack and shoulder. The leg is used for the production of raw ham; alternatively with this cut you can also produce cooked ham, culatello, flake and speck. The covering fat provides lard and bacon. The lard represents the dorsal portion of this fat, while the bacon is located in the ventral area; from its trimming it is also obtained meat for the production of salami. From lard instead, cubes and lardons are obtained which are indispensable for the production of sausages and mortadella.
The factors that come into play in the production of a high quality salami are manifold and range from the correct meat processing system to the choice of any cooking methods, from the salting process to the choice of spices to be used, from the correct execution of the seasoning with suitable storage and packaging methods. A fundamental role then belongs to the natural elements: in particular the microclimate of the various production areas, which is crucial in guaranteeing the delicacy of the scent and flavor of the various Italian cured meats. It is a factor that makes each cured meat a unique and unrepeatable product, obtainable only in very specific and specific geographical areas. For this reason, in general, the products of the warmer regions are tastier, while those of the colder regions are usually sweeter in taste.
The constant attention and continuous improvements in the production techniques of Italian cured meats, which are also one of the secrets of their success on tables around the world, are the result of a happy union between culture, centuries-old traditions and modern technology, capable of ensuring a impeccable quality product.
PDO Parma Ham