Parma ham and asparagus go well together, so should I wrap asparagus in Parma ham and if so, should I fry or grill the wrapped asparagus? (Mrs Pam Armaham)
Dear Mrs Armaham
Thank you for your questions. The answers are easy: no, no and no.
Your local Italian deli will cut Parma ham into large paper-thin slices; they present it this way to enhance both the textural quality of the ham and the eating experience. They would be aghast if they thought that they were serving you a convenient culinary wrapping material!
To enjoy Parma ham at its best, eat it in a simple antipasto. Carefully place a couple slices of ham on a plate with a few olives, a little Italian cheese and some rustic bread. By presenting Parma ham in this manner, one is able to fully appreciate the traditional craft of the curing process, the quality of the specialty breeds of pig (raised on local cereals and whey from the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese making region) and the velvety silkiness of the artisan meat.
However, for many, the sight of large, floppy sheets of ham is too much to resist and they start wrapping; they wrap stuffed chicken breasts, bread sticks, cod loins, scallops, prawns, ballotines, the meat of Wellingtons and more, including asparagus.
With its branded assurances and PDO status designating its unique quality and distinct regional provenance, Parma ham is far too exclusive and prestigious to twist, twizzle or tie around anything, especially asparagus.
Further, it is practically impossible to balance flavours when wrapping food with Parma ham. An asparagus spear, for instance, needs only a small amount of ham to create perfect blend of flavours, whereas a fully ham-wrapped spear of asparagus will upset this fine balance with too much ham. So wrapping asparagus in ham does not really make good gastronomic sense.
Finally, the cooking of Parma ham (especially frying or grilling) is a related yet particular and distinct problem. Heat changes the character and taste of the ham completely – as the ham starts to cook it becomes stiffer and saltier; as it continues to cook, it becomes pleasantly crispy, but also intensely salty and decidedly acrid, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Some cooks maintain that the flavour of the ham will transfer into the wrapped food. This may be so – and who am I to argue with the logic of a Saltimbocca, the classic Italian dish of fried veal and Parma ham – but nevertheless, at some stage soon after heating, the ham will begin to lose its luxurious fresh sweetness and take on the qualities of a common-or-garden variety bacon. In the case of asparagus wrapped in Parma ham and fried, this not only overpowers the asparagus it destroys its delicate and unique flavour too.
However, as you also note, the combination of Parma ham and asparagus marries well, perhaps just as Parma ham and melon are themselves a marriage made in heaven. Parma ham, with its salty, savoury and sweet flavours is a perfect foil for the earthy, vegetable and mineral flavours of the asparagus. So, Mrs Armaham, my advice is by all means, sit the Parma ham and the asparagus side by side – just as you would with Parma ham and melon, but please don’t wrap your asparagus (or melon!) in ham. In addition, if you do, for goodness sake, don’t fry it or grill it!