There are some products and ingredients which, to a casual observer, may look identical, but a real gourmet knows better. Let’s take Prosciutto di Parma and Jamón Iberico de Bellota, for instance: they are both raw hams but entirely different. Both belong to the category of top quality cold cuts, both are eaten sliced and both are made from the leg of pork.
But what is the difference between Jamón and Prosciutto?
First difference: appearance
Prosciutto di Parma has a rounded shape and the leg weighs from 7 to 10 kilos without the hoof. The ham slice is red with white fat only around the outside edge. The rind is thick. When cut, the slice should not look shiny but moist. A small portion of white fat should stand out in the centre (corresponding to the femoral vein).
Jamón Iberico de Bellota is smaller and, on average, weighs from 5.5 to 6.5 kilos. It is coral red in colour with infiltrations of fat and the cut slice is small and rectangular in shape. The leg is elongated with a characteristic 'V' cut and has a thinner ankle compared to the white breed used to make Jamón Serrano. The trotter is black and the rind is glossy and gelatinous.
Second difference: production area
The Italian prosciutto is produced in that part of Parma province lying to the south of the Emilia-Romagna region, at a distance of at least 5 km, and at an altitude of no more than 900 metres a.s.l. Most of the production, however, is concentrated around the village of Langhirano, whose economy revolves around cured pork meat factories and their satellite activities. The pigs, however, may have been bred on Italian farms situated in Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Latium, Abruzzo or Molise.
The Spanish ham comes from the regions of Salamanca, Extremadura and Andalusia. The town of Guijuelo, located in the northern region of Salamanca, produces Joselito, certainly the best-known variety on international markets. To the east lies Huelva province with the town of Jabugo, which produces the lesser known variety of 'Valle de Los Pedroches' of an extraordinarily high quality.
Prosciutto di Parma is aged for at least 12 months. The ageing process of Iberico ham ranges from 24 to 36 months.
In the case of Italian raw ham, specifications only allow for the use of 100% Italian natural meat. For this purpose, only the traditional pig breeds of Large White and Landrace are selected, aged at least 9 months and weighing on average 160 kg. The pigs are bred in specific regions of North and Central Italy. The Italian pigs destined for the production of Prosciutto di Parma are raised on a diet of genuine foodstuffs such as corn, barley and whey, which derives from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Authentic Iberico ham must be made entirely from the meat of black Iberian pigs, left free to roam in a pasture where they feed off oak acorns. Authentic Jamon Iberico derives from pigs whose diet is composed of acorns (bellota) and grass, as well as the aromatic herbs growing wild in the meadows.
The trademark of Prosciutto di Parma is identified by the famous Ducal Crown, while a black seal certifies the best Jamon Iberico and is only awarded to top quality products.
Both are eaten sliced but the Prosciutto di Parma is machine cut into extremely fine slices.
Jamón Iberico is hand carved. The ‘cortador’ or carver must be particularly skilled in this art. A special ham holder is required to hold it steady and suitable knives must be used.
Nothing but salt is used to produce Prosciutto di Parma and it is forbidden to use chemical substances, preservatives or any other additives. Neither is smoking nor freezing permitted. Connoisseurs will tell you that the essential ingredient is the fine dry air of the hills around Parma.
Preservatives are allowed in the production of Iberico ham, even though producers do not all use the same ones.
Nutritional information for Prosciutto di Parma and Jamón Iberico
Jamón Ibérico is a very calorie-rich food, with twice as much fat per weight as Parma ham, though both are relatively high in fat and this discrepancy can be due to the longer curing time (and lower moisture content) of jamón ibérico. However, much of the fat in both products is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which is abundant in olive oil. This fat is actually considered 'heart friendly'. Jamón ibérico typically contains less sodium and cholesterol than Parma ham. Both are stellar sources of protein, and contain healthy minerals like thiamine, iron and selenium.
A 24-month Prosciutto di Parma is priced at around 50 Euro per kilo.
Jamón Ibérico starts from 50 Euro/kg and special varieties may even be as pricey as 200 Euro.
The essential difference between these two ham varieties is that Parma raw ham can be enjoyed as an ingredient or accompaniment, while Jamon Iberico is religiously consumed on its own.
Prosciutto di Parma regales an initial on-palate sensation of sweetness. The leg must have a good surrounding layer of fat and, above all, a certain amount of internal veining which gives flavour to the cut slice. A correct percentage of fat ensures an ideal balance which makes all the difference to the end product. A salty ham is always a poor quality product, especially in the case of a PDO Parma ham. Its aroma must be that of cured meat and red fruits and, when placed in the mouth, it should melt on the tongue immediately without becoming dry. It is all a question of texture: quality ham has a soft velvety texture, it is neither soggy nor dry. It simply melts in the mouth.
The flavour of Jamón Iberico depends on the fact that pigs feed off acorns and are free to roam. The texture is tender, fatty and melt-in-the-mouth with aromas of wild herbs, mushroom and truffle which increase in intensity according to the age of the ham. The meat of Jamón Iberico is of a deep red colour, characterised by a pronounced scent of meadow grass and herbs. Its fat is particularly sapid and intense, especially when it melts at a temperature of 32-33°, which is why it should never be eaten cold. Its aftertaste is particularly persistent.
Pairings of Parma ham and Jamón Ibérico
Parma ham is perfect when served with melon or figs or used to fill a bread bun. Try it with a fresh cheese such as mozzarella or burrata, or simply eaten with breadsticks. It is an essential ingredient of the filling used to stuff tortellini. Purists will say Jamón Ibérico is strictly for eating on its own and has no other uses. The correct weight of an individual serving is around 50/60g. But if you are a renegade diner and like to break the rules, maybe you’ll shave some Jamón Ibérico onto toast drizzled with tomato juice and olive oil. Or you can slide poached eggs onto the jamón and toast. Alternatively, you can forgo the other ingredients and keep your Jamón Ibérico pure, but moisten your palate between nibbles with a dry sparkling wine like cava, or a fortified wine.