Bee Wilson hams it up

Parma ham and pregnancy: a recipe for disaster?

The midwife began to read me her list. Her voice contained that same mixture of briskness and boredom you hear from air hostesses as they intone, for the thousandth time, the standard safety warnings before take-off.

"Pate, soft cheeses, unpasteurised cheeses, shellfish, swordfish [because of the nasty things they ingest], liver [because of the nasty toxins that gather there], uncooked eggs, peanuts [in case of allergies], raw or rare meat . . . oh, and Parma ham."

Parma ham! This was a disaster. I was about to fly to Parma for the weekend for a festival of ham, where my greedy intention was to do little except eat the delicious local prosciutto. "Are you sure?" I asked querulously. She checked with two doctors and a health visitor. They were all sure. Prosciutto di Parma counted, in their eyes, as raw meat. As such, it carried a risk of toxoplasmosis (which you can also catch, if you are not immune, by petting unclean cats). The helpline of the Centre for Pregnancy Nutrition at the University of Sheffield gave the same gloomy prognosis.

Perhaps it was gluttony on my part, but the information just didn't add up. How could slices of Parma ham, those divine, rosy canopies of sweet, cured flesh and melting fat, be classified the same as an undercooked pork chop? Anxiously sensing my epicurean junket slipping away, I telephoned the English representative of Parma ham with whom I was to travel. Obviously, it was to her own advantage as well as mine to reassure me that Parma ham is safe. But vested interest aside, her consoling advice really did seem to have a strong empirical basis.

Not only do Italian doctors not forbid the consumption of Parma ham to pregnant women; they positively encourage it. During the curing process, much of the saturated fat in the pig becomes unsaturated oleic acid, the main component of olive oil. The ham also contains large amounts of vitamins and trace elements, and a good balance of proteins to fat. Professor Andrea Strata, the chair of food science at the University of Parma, has concluded that its high protein content and "easy digestibility" make it an ideal food for expectant mothers. As far as toxoplasmosis goes, Parma ham is also safe, but with one important proviso. You must make sure that you eat top-quality, certified prosciutto di Parma, and not the cheaper, generic prosciutto crudo.

The production of real Parma ham is rigorously controlled by the Consortium of Prosciutto di Parma, which ensures that all the pigs come from specified breeds. The meat undergoes no fewer than nine separate processes before it can be fire-branded with the "Ducal Crown" stamp that marks its genuine status (look for this logo on the corner of packets). It is cut, cooled, trimmed, salted twice and then rested in an assortment of different cold stores. Finally, it is washed, aired and greased before being cured for a minimum of 12 months. Inspectors then test every ham with a horse-bone needle. When you have witnessed this magical process, felt the breeze of the cold room on your cheeks and seen the ham's rind gradually transmute from butcher's pink to Parmesan yellow, it is hard to imagine how any bugs could remain in the meat.

Research done at Perugia University has found that because Parma ham, unlike other cured uncooked meats, is kept at very low temperatures (from 0 to 4 degrees C) for at least three months in the early stages, "it is impossible for the toxoplasmosis protozoon to maintain its infective capacity".

But that would mean - no, it isn't possible - that British medical advice might sometimes be fallible . . .