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Superlative ham production

It is not only the cities that have exceptional offers. Often, the provinces also belong to the elite when it comes to producing quality and quantity every single day. In all modesty and completely unspectacularly, the small town of Aoste is one of the towns in this league. On the outside, the halls of the eponymous brand manufacturer of ham and raw sausage do not betray the internal quality that is part of everyday performance.

Above all, when it comes to manufacture of raw ham, the small town in the French foothills of the Alps can consider itself a true “world champion”. After all, the world’s largest ham production site slowly developed here over the years. From delivery to cutting to consumer-oriented packaging, all processes are located under one roof. Anyone who is invited to tour the production halls needs at least four hours – and should be correspondingly fit!

The numbers that the French have to show for themselves definitely hold their own against all comers. At any one time, two million hams can be found in the 105 drying and ripening chambers, which have a total area of 80,000 m2. But there are even more superlatives. France’s largest pork cutting facilities, which employ 90 pieceworkers, are also housed under this roof. 1,000 t of pork are skillfully cut each week. This is 50 percent of the meat processed in the plants of the entire Aoste Group.

Four production plants with an overall area of 100,000 m2 are situated under one roof. 800 employees produce not only ham, but also salami (3,000 t per year) as well as 720 t of piquant specialties.

This facility also houses another world record: the largest slicing facility in the world, with a capacity of 1,000 t per month. A total of 16 slicer and packaging lines are found here, which daily serve the growing demand for self-service wares.

The plant was last expanded in 2004. Today, over 75 percent of the Aoste Group’s products are portioned under these roofs and labeled for sale in various self-service packages.

Strict quality criteria

A tour of the plant involves a walk of 3 km. Right at the beginning, where the incoming goods arrive, the visitor sees that production of large amounts and demands for the highest quality can perfectly mesh. Not only the acceptance, but also examination of the incoming meats is done almost entirely automatically. The fat content and pH value of every piece is recorded. Some ten percent of these hams do not reach the maturing chambers because they do not meet Aoste’s strict quality criteria.

The raw material comes primarily from France and Germany. At the receiving inspection, meats are tested against twelve different but precisely determined classifications. In addition to size and weight, fat content and sensory qualities play a major role. Each ham is classified and labeled with a data record attached in the form of a bar code.

If a piece of meat is complained about and returned, the deficiencies are also noted in this manner and can be read out by the recipient. At the same time, this procedure guarantees 100 percent traceability for every ham processed here.

Loss with profit

At first, the pork legs are prepared and brined. After a resting phase of 14 to 18 days, they are brined once again. The next ripening process takes three months.

To guarantee the same quality and ripening length throughout, the hams are handled in batches in which every piece has the same weight. This way, the weight loss of an entire batch can be determined by weighing the rack. In this phase, the hams lose circa 15 percent of their weight.

A further 15 percent are lost during the second ripening phase. Here, the ham is ripened at a slightly higher storage temperature. Drying at 16 to 18 °C brings out the characteristic taste and contributes to optimal aroma development.

Before the last ripening phase, lard is applied to the raw hams, as is typical. In Aoste, a specially developed procedure is used for this, which is reminiscent of painting technology. The carefully prepared fat is not painted by hand, but gently sprayed on using a spray gun.

High-demand specialties

Before the ham is sliced or sent in pieces to the packaging department, it undergoes one further production step. During the semi-automatic deboning process, the bone is removed by hand before the pieces are sewn and pressed together mechanically.

After picking, 35,000 cartons with a total of 750,000 packages leave the plant daily. Over 60 percent of Aoste raw sausages and hams can be found on self-service shelves. Special slicer halls whose climate is coordinated for optimal quality retention maintain the greatest degree of freshness. This has also improved the time to maturity. In addition to purchasers in the trade, the main buyers of these specialties, which are sold throughout Europe, are German retailers.

In addition to its own sales organization, Aoste relies on its cooperation with R&S GmbH in Essen, Germany. Aoste began developing the German market over 30 years ago together with Albert Rauch, R&S’s founder. He supplies Aoste ham and raw sausage specialties to meat co-ops and food retailers.

Rainer Heck

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