August 10, 2011
My Shopping Basket

Four Seasons of Prosciutto

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Brampton plant straddles old world, new world . . . .

The world’s largest prosciutto plant outside of Italy is right in our city’s backyard. Who knew?

       Hamming it up in the aging room. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

The heady porky, peppery aroma of 120,000 prosciutto hams is intoxicating as I step into the aging room at Santa Maria Foods in Brampton, Ont. The room is a feast for the eyes, too. Prosciuttos hang 80 to a rack, up to 95 lines down and 18 rows across. Do the math and a full house would be 136,800. That’s a lot of good eating.

Chief prosciutto maker Mike Pallotta, 28 years at Santa Maria, inserts a wicked sharp horse-bone pick into one of the prosciuttos and sniffs. No off odors – it passes the test. This is the traditional way to test prosciutto, and stangely appropriate here. We may be in a modern, clean, stainless steel environment, but the prosciuttos themselves are cured traditionally, using the natural ingredients salt, lard, pepper and time.

       Plant veteran Mike Pallotta sniffing a horse-bone pick.

Toronto shoppers are no strangers to Santa Maria’s San Daniele and Mastro brands of prosciutto, mortadella and salami. But they don’t know much about Santa Maria. Italo Rizzutto, an immigrant from Abruzzi, started the mother company back in 1978.

I am enjoying a rare tour of the plant despite sweating and wrestling with all the food-safety gear. By the time I am done, I will have donned three different lab coats, a hair net and a face mask, and clodhopped through the 185,000-square-foot plant in size 12, steel-toed wellies.

Plant manager Isaias Vizinho guides us through the old-world, 10-month process that transforms a pork leg into prosciutto. “It’s basically modern technology matching the four seasons of Italy,” he says. “We try to mimic the seasons in a controlled environment.”

In “winter,” the hams go in. In “fall,” they come out. If you knew what you were sniffing for, you could follow your nose from one production stage to another.

As we move from room to room, stage to stage, the aromas change, from salty pork to peppery dry cured ham. Sizes and colours change, too. By the time a prosciutto is ready for market, it has gone from pink to yellowish to red-brown, and has lost two-thirds of its moisture.

Prosciutto proves it: There’s something magical about food science.

       Prosciutto “sushi” snack at the Brampton plant.

The Making of Prosciutto

  • A pork shipment arrives at the plant. There are three suppliers, one in Guelph and two in Montreal.
  • Each pork leg is rubbed with salt, massaged and aged 3 weeks, then moved, hung and rested up to the 12-week stage.
  • Salt is washed off. Lard mixed with pepper is brushed on the exposed surfaces. This acts like an artificial skin, slowing down moisture loss.
  • Prosciuttos are hung in the aging room for 120 days.
  • Both man and machine get each prosciutto ready for market. A mechanism like a car wash removes the lard. A machine loosens the bones. The prosciutto is trimmed and pressed, and the skin sewn. The prosciutto is ticketed and stamped for full traceability. It is sold whole or sliced. A slicing machine manages 850 cuts per minute, making them thinner than the paper it automatically inserts between each slice.
  • The prosciuttos are sold. Products go to Canadian markets, as well as exported to the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. Some are sent to the neverending buffets of cruise ships.
     Special gear is worn to trim prosciuttos for market.