I meet Davide Nini for lunch in a small trattoria in the heart of Modena. Over antipasti, classic tortellini in brodo and a bottle or two of Lambrusco, I learn a lot about the air-dried ham from this region and the small but subtle distinctions from its big brother, prosciutto di Parma.
Davide is already the third generation to run his family’s business – the history of Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco can be traced back over 110 years. Davide is also the acting president of the Consorzio Prosciutto di Modena, the umbrella organization of ham producers. A man who knows his business inside out.
While Prosciutto di Parma has become a global brand and sells well over eight million hams a year, one hears rather little about the ham from Modena. But it is also no wonder. Only ten farms are active in the region, and total annual production is no more than one percent of what is produced 60 kilometers to the southeast. The differences are not great – but definitely present and fine.
After lunch we will go to the production of Nini Gianfranco. From the outside, one has no idea what is hidden behind these inconspicuous walls, which look more like an apartment building than a meat processing plant. About 35,000 hams in various degrees of maturity hang here spread over three floors. With a selling price of over 100€ each, quite a small fortune.
The hams spend a total of 14 months in the halls of Davide Nini. However, there is no slaughter here. The legs are delivered already ready and initially salted for one hundred days and stored at around 4 degrees. In this first step, they lose ten percent of their weight.
They are then taken from the cold storage to the upper floor of the house, washed and dried. The area not enclosed by its own fat is carefully rubbed with a mixture of lard and salt to prevent the product from drying out. For hours I could watch the two staff members doing this almost meditative activity….
Just like the pigs for Parma ham, the animals for Proscuitto di Modena come from one of the ten defined regions of Italy: Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Molise, Umbria, Tuscany, Marche, Abruzzo and Lazio. They must be older than 9 months at slaughter and weigh at least 140 kg. Only a very small part of the hams produced come from certified organic farms. Consumers, Davide Nini explained to me, are unfortunately not willing to pay the significantly higher price for organic products.
In contrast to the Parma ham, Modena is salted a little stronger. Davide explains that in particular the climate, especially the air that passes through the region and also blows through large windows through the building, is also relevant to the difference.
In the end, however, the taste decides – and first the smell. Because each ham is tested in a manual process, sorting it into different categories. The olfactory test is performed with a pointed horse bone in a very traditional way. The inspector stabs down to the bone of the ham in at least five places and can determine the basic quality characteristics and make a rating by the odor that adheres to the horse bone.
Anything below the minimum score is sorted out and not put on sale. The approximately ten percent of medium quality hams are used mainly for stuffing, for example, tortellini. And only the best prosciuttos receive the seal of quality from Modena and go on sale. In Germany, primarily in the hotels of the Althoff Group and isolated delicatessens. Unfortunately, you can’t order directly from Davide Nini – but a trip to Modena is actually always worthwhile anyway. And a large ham will keep for several weeks even at home….
Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco s.r.l.
Via Sicilia, 61
41056 Savignano sul Panaro – (MO) Italy
Note: My visit to Emilia Romagna was kindly supported by the Institute for the Promotion of Italian Sausages (Istituto Valorizzazione Salumi Italiani – IVSI) and by the EU-funded campaign “Authentic European Pleasure” – no influence on the reporting was taken.