In Emilia-Romagna: Prosciutto di Parma By Clive Pursehouse | Photos Courtesy the Rogers Collection

As the Giro d’Italia’s Stage 11 ends in Rimini, the Italian grand tour arrives and spends the next few days in Emilia-Romagna, a region rich in cycling history and challenging climbing, and the epicenter of much of Italy’s impressive food culture.

By Clive Pursehouse | Photos Courtesy the Rogers Collection

Emilia-Romagna’s cycling chops are unquestionable. Having just hosted the very memorable world championships no more than three weeks ago at Imola, pro cycling has already returned for stage 12 of the Giro which begins and ends with a punchy climber’s loop in Cesenatico, home of Marco Pantani, and the longest running Gran Fondo, Nove Colli, started here in the 1970s. 

Emilia-Romagna is the undisputed food capital of the world when you consider the region’s bonafides. The local pastas like cappelletti, garganelli, strozzapreti, sfoglia lorda and tortelli alla lastra, not to mention perhaps the greatest: tagliatelle. The balsamic vinegar of Modena, and perhaps the greatest cheese in all the world, Parmigiano-Reggiano. While there is plenty of coast line along the Adriatic, Emilia-Romagna may be most known for its meat, of the cured variety. From Bologna’s mortadella, Piacenza’s coppa, pancetta and salami, but perhaps no cured meat conjures notions of Italy like prosciutto di Parma.

Giovanni Bianchi’s great grandfather Ferrante Tosini launched a family foray into prosciutto over 110 years ago, slaughtering and curing pigs in the back of the family grocery store. Eventually he and his son Pio, of the eponymous Pio Tosini prosciutto brand, began experimenting with different curing methods, establishing an innovation that has continued to put them consistently at the top of Italy’s prosciutto brands. For Bianchi, and much of Italy, prosciutto is part consumable, and part cultural—a product of ingenuity and history.

“Prosciutto di Parma has a strong identity with this part of Emilia-Romagna, but I wouldn’t say this is true everywhere in Italy,” says Bianchi. “We always have to remember that Italy is home to a variety of different languages, foods, and traditions. Prosciutto roots are deep, and they go back to Roman colonization of the Po River Valley, originally inhabited by Celtic tribes. The Romans further developed and expanded the Celtic traditions of raising pigs, elevating the pig to a sort of totemic animal for farmers and their families. Every farmer had pigs, and curing meat became distinctive to the whole of the Po River Valley.”

The significance of the pig extends beyond family farming. Sculptures in local medieval churches include allegorical representations of the importance of the pig in local culture through the centuries; scenes of farmers slaughtering pigs and working charcuterie cuts are a recurring theme.

In the context of local culture, prosciutto producers like Pio Tosini latched onto innovation and mechanization by the end of the nineteenth century. Refrigeration in particular made it possible to expand the curing of prosciutto beyond cellars and caves. “The Parma food valley was uniquely positioned both culturally and geographically to take what we had, the mild winds from the Apennine range, the rich farming practice and the ancient Via Salaria or ‘salt-road,’ a trade route over the Apennine range connecting the Adriatic Sea to the Mediterranean and Rome,” says Bianchi. “We had everything we needed, and the modernization and expansion that happened after World War II meant we were able to take our prosciutto traditions from Emilia-Romagna to Italy, Europe and the world.”

Prosciutto is a marriage of two ingredients, pork and salt, and a third, time. The hams at Pio Tosini are stored in curing houses with open windows to allow natural winds to facilitate the curing, and they use a soft touch with the salt, much less than other producers. In order to reach the same richness of flavor with less salt, Pio Tosini feeds the pigs whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, the only local food that may eclipse the fame of the region’s cured hams. They also age the prosciutto for 20 months, a touch longer than many other prosciutto producers.

“Prosciutto is a very simple product, a marriage of two ingredients, so the most crucial step is the salting process, and how the salt penetrates the meat, and the curing process has to be slow and delicate, and for that we use only the valley winds, keeping our production volumes low, but our quality consistent and always high,” says Bianchi.

For more information on Pio Tosini prosciutto, or to order your own (whole legs only):