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MILAN (Reuters Life!) - You need salt, fresh air, expert hands and nothing else. It might seem like the recipe for a stay at a luxury spa, but these are instead the ingredients for turning a leg of pork into the "King" of Parma hams.
It's not as simple as it sounds, though, to produce the sweet, tender delicacy that Italians call "Prosciutto di Parma" and which has become increasingly popular with Britons and Americans as "Parma Ham."
It takes months of careful work by experts who stick to traditions as ancient as Christianity, eschewing modern technology and additives.
"There are no secret formulas here," says Paolo Tanara, chairman of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, the organization that supervises production of the deep pink hams.
"There are, or better still there should be, only personal expertise and practice, a favorable environment and the simplest and oldest preservative: sea salt."
Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced in a very restricted area of 29 sq km (11.2 sq mile) around the town of Parma in the region of Emilia Romagna, just north of Tuscany.
To the north of this area, production must be 5 km south of the ancient Roman road, the Via Emilia, to avoid the fog of the Po valley.
In the south, it cannot climb above 900 meters on the Appenines to avoid the severe mountain climate. To east and west, it is bordered by the rivers Enza and Stirone respectively.
And the region benefits from the salty sea air of the Ligurian and Tuscan coasts.
Into this little alcove, around 2,700 legs of pork are brought every day from 10 selected regions of Italy.
And it is here that they get the care needed to turn them into Prosciutto di Parma and earn the title of King, with the branding of a five-pointed crown that is Parma Ham's worldwide sign of excellence.
"Many people have tried to imitate this product," Tanara says. "They haven't managed to because it is only here that there are the conditions suited to drying the ham and the care and expertise of people who are using a 2,000 year-old tradition."
Parma Ham was awarded protected status as a brand by the European Union in 1996 and it is now registered in over 40 countries.
Around 10 million hams are sold every year, of which about 2 million are exported, mainly to France, the United States and Germany, which each consume about 400,000 a year.
Foreign consumers prefer ready-sliced hams in vacuum packs instead of insisting, as most Italians do, that it is cut to order in front of them -- allowing them to choose sweeter or less fatty, thin or thick.
Production this year is expected to match or slightly exceed that of 2008, when 9.8 million hams were sold, the consortium says, with a big jump in pre-packed ham.
About 52 million packs of ham were sold in 2008 -- 15 million in Italy and 37 million abroad. Sales were already 4.8 percent higher in the first eight months of 2009.
The process for preparing Parma Ham reads more like a treatment from a beauty farm than a pig farm.
The ham is handed over, put in position, massaged and then rested before finding its perfect form.
The basic material is a leg of pork -- the thigh only -- that weighs around 15 kg (33.07 lb) from a pig at least 9 months old and of about 150 kg weight.
This is chilled to a temperature around zero so that the meat hardens, leading it to lose about 1 percent of its weight.
At this point, expert hands remove the excess fat and give it the ham's classic rounded shape.
It is then massaged with sea salt -- one of the most delicate phases of the process -- in strictly controlled temperature and humidity.
After these steps, the ham is put to rest for between 60 and 80 days.
Then it gets more treatments -- including an all-over wash and covering with lard -- and then another rest, this time for at least five months.
All these processes help to give the ham its nutritional values. It contains only 11.5 percent fat and after a year, the ham is really in form. It has lost about a third of its original weight and it has obtained the perfume, the sweetness and the consistency which allow it to win the five-point crown branding of the king of hams.
writing by Jo Winterbottom, editing by Paul Casciato