Parma, Italy, is the nexus of the best ham and cheese in the world — Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Join that with tenderloin of beef and turn out an extraordinary dish for entertaining, the Rosa de Parma.
I learned this incredible dish at a cooking class in a small apartment in Parma. Our teacher, Maria Rosa, had a hard time making us understand that the piece of meat she rolled and filled was a tenderloin. It wasn't shaped like a long cylinder: It was nearly rectangular, in so far as meat can be, and about an inch and a half thick.
Once we saw how she did it, however, and tasted it, well, we were won over, even in a city where there is no mediocre food. As the accompanying recipe indicates, it can be made ahead and reheated or served cold.
Parma is the kind of city where at lunch you are planning dinner and at dinner you are planning the next day's lunch. Usually it revolves around the ham and cheese for which it is renowned, products unduplicated anywhere in the world. The cheese might be added to eggs and milk to make a custard by itself, or to hold zucchini, tomatoes or whatever is in season.
Prosciutto di Parma, cured for a minimum of 18 months and sliced so thinly it can be read through, can be wrapped around any fruit — mango, peach, fig, melon or pear, for example — and eaten as an hors d'oeuvre. Or it is served radiating out in spokes from the center of a plate, covered tenderly with plastic wrap until the moment of serving so it will not dry out.
Rosa di Parma is a regal dish that combines a tenderloin of beef with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma.
These ingredients are so important that only they may carry their names. They have PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin) from the European Community certification system, which is designed to protect the names of high-quality foods made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region.
The concept of "terroir" holds that the taste and other unique qualities of traditionally made foods and wines are influenced directly by soil, plant life, climate and time-honored methods of production that can't be replicated elsewhere.
This is certainly true of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The cheese is made once a day with milk from cows fed special grasses and flowers. Stirred and heated slowly in shining copper vats until the curd separates from the whey, the curd is scooped up in cloth and moved to a brine, then ultimately stored in huge rooms that are strictly temperature controlled. Each of the 75-kilo cheeses are wiped and turned every day, and regularly tested for excellence with a little hammer. After no less than 18 months of aging for a second quality and a minimum of two years for first quality, with four years for the top quality, it is tested yet again and deemed by the Consortio di Parma (a strictly regulated government conglomeration of producers) ready to be stamped with the words Parmigiano-Reggiano.
After further testing and aging, it is pronounced ready to sell. The whey, not discarded, is fed to local pigs.
Those for Prosciutto di Parma are four months older at slaughtering than the average pig at six months, contributing to their tenderness and flavor. The hams they produce are cured a minimum of one year, but usually more than 14 months, with no additives. These salt-cured hams are massaged daily, and aged by a 2,000 year-old process until they, too, pass government inspection. (One leg, aged 14 years, recently sold for $6,000.)