After the first stop that we made in Felino, to closely see Branchi’s company and their cooked ham, our itinerary said that we were going to visit S. Ilario’s ham factory in Mulazzano Ponte, a small town not far from where we were. To get there, we drove through streets full of ham factories: it’s incredible to see how many plants are set in that area, you can literally find one of them after the other!
This time, who welcomed us was uncle Paul (“Like the apostle”, he said), who is the brother of Piero Montali – the owner of the company. He’s an agronomist and he looks after his fields, but he reaches for the plant when someone calls him, in case of need, and he perfectly knows every secret of meat processing. He’s a hearty, lively and nice gentleman, with long grey hair, a moustache that frames his mouth, a red bandana around his neck and a S. Ilario-branded uniform, hat included.
The first thing we did was the plant tour, and in the end we sat at a desk in order to have him tell us the story of the company… but to make everything clearer, here we switch the order of things, and we start from the origins.
Piero, as said before, is the founder and owner of the company. He never really loved life in the farm, so when he was just 12 he started working as a boy in a pork slaughterhouse.
As time went by, when he was older he found himself eating every day in the same tavern during his lunchbreak. Then, around 1960, he decided with a partner to start producing seasoned pork shoulder – followed by other kinds of cold cuts – for that very restaurant.
In the end he started working by himself, so he gave birth to the “Salumificio S. Ilario SNC” and he moved to the present plant around 1970.
Who follows and helps him in his work are above all his sons: Raffaele takes care of choosing the meat and processing it, while Stefano deals with the commercial side of the job.
Their ham is Parma-marked, so it obeys to all the criteria imposed by Parma’s consortium. The processing is apparently not particularly complicated… but, probably, the secret of their success it’s the simplicity itself. The simplicity, combined to the huge knowledge of the secrets of the trade (like the wind, the humidity, the temperatures) and to a complete devotion… indeed, even though they produce around 70/80.000 pieces of ham per year, they are all treated with love, as if they were Piero’s sons! You can’t believe that if you don’t see it…
Our tour in the plant was absolutely exciting: unfortunately, technology doesn’t allow us to make you smell the perfume we smelled among the lines of hanging thighs that were seasoning, but it was the most heady thing that you could ever imagine… so that, the next night, I (Arianna) dreamt of lots and lots of pieces of ham. We’ll try to give you an idea of all that, using words and pictures… we hope to make it!
First of all, an important thing needs to be said: every thigh that is processed in S. Ilario’s plant is personally chosen by Piero and Raffaele at the slaughterhouse. Everyone of them, after reaching the plant and being unloaded from the truck, goes across a roll and is singularly checked, from the first to le last one: the meat has to be excellent and to respect all the criteria that will allow it to become sublime raw ham. Moreover, maintaining the tradition, during winter they stop the processing for three months: from January til March they don’t collect any raw material, but they use that period of time only to go on with the seasoning and perhaps to fix some parts of the plant.
After seeing the roll mentioned before, we went to the machine that “massages” the thighs, in order to perfectly clean the femoral artery, and that does a first salting, which is later manually finished off – always piece after piece, obviously.
The salted thighs are subsequently put to stand in refrigerating rooms for 20/25 days, at a low temperature (between 2 and 4 Celsius degrees, because if it was closer to 0°, the meat would become too tough and wouldn’t absorbe salt properly) and at controlled humidity – controlled by the owners in person, not by machines.
Every batch of thighs is marked with a very technologic method: a small paperboard obtained from the cover of an old notebook, handwritten. An exemple to say that, in this company, there are not many industrial and complicated things… it’s all based on the quality of the raw material and on the ability of who perfectly knows his art.
After the curing period, the meat keeps on standing for 70/80 more days in refrigerating rooms. “Keeps on standing” doesn’t mean “it’s left to its own resources”: indeed, the thighs are constantly monitored and closely followed, to make sure that their processing goes on in the best way.
After the rest, the seasoning can begin: this follows specific rules too, they’re necessary in order to obtain an excellent product. Seasoning doesn’t consist of just leave the pieces of ham hanging and waiting to be ready. To be optimal, you need to consider the quality of the air, of the weather conditions, of the winds. Currently, it’s forbidden to season ham in the open air, due to the excessive quantity of fine dusts, so they are kept in huge rooms which are closed… but with windows. Suffice it to say that sometimes it happens that Piero goes to the plant at 3 a.m. in order to open the windows, because he knows that at that time the marine wind will come, and his pieces of ham will take advantage from it. This is complete devotion, isn’t it? And it’s the basis that you need if you want to obtain a unique final product!
Two more important operations in the processing of ham, taking place in different moments of the seasoning, are the filling and the greasing. Both hand-made by employees that pass each other these huge thighs (they’re about 15 kg each!) and that seems to caress them when, for exemple, they put in the filler with their fingers.
The greasing takes place a little later, first of all brushing the uncovered part of the meat with warm suet and then massaging another cold layer above the first one, in order to perfectly protect ham. The suet recipe changes in different companies: S. Ilario’s one is basic and doesn’t alter the flavour of ham – it’s made with pork fat and rice flour only (another important thing to note: rice flour is gluten free, so their product is suitable also for people with celiac disease).
The last thing to do is to complete the seasoning of the pieces of ham. That’s the point where you enter the Paradise – for who loves this food: huge wooden structures hosting thousands of hanging thighs.
If they’re already seasoned enough, they’re Parma-marked and, in the drawstring that holds the piece of ham, you can often find a small paperboard – another technologic means to remember which pieces are destined to which buyer.
The fragrance that leaks out in these corridors is indescribable, it’s already enough to understand that you’re surrounded by precious products and that it’s unlikely to discover such a quality somewhere else.
We also need to underline that S. Ilario’s ham is the only one, among the ones of Parma’s Ham Consortium, to be seasoned at least for 22 months. This removes from it the unpleasant sensation of “raw meat” that you sometimes can find in other kinds of raw ham… this one is a perfectly seasoned ham, but also very sweet, so you can taste the harmonious flavour of its meat.
The reason why Paola, some years ago, chose to sell S. Ilario’s Parma ham in her shop “La Delizia” is just this : for a lot of time, she has been looking for a ham which had to be seasoned and of the highest quality. She found it in this company, with which she fell in love without leaving it anymore, believing it’s the best in its genre.
I am a mere taster, but I can say that I never tasted such a good raw ham before.
If you want to try it too – which we highly recommend to do – stop by Russi (Ravenna) and you’ll find it there, waiting and winking at you from the shelves of the shop!