The unmistakable waft of muskiness tickles the nose as you descend into the underground level of Antica Corte Pallavicina. To the uninitiated, it can be a little off-putting. Though if you are visiting the 14th-century historic estate in Polesine Parmese province—about 30km north-west of Parma—of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, chances are you are there for the source of that smell. And the tang is an encouraging marker, indicating that you are nearing Antica Corte Pallavicina’s legendary repository of Culatello di Zibello DOP, the region’s most prized charcuterie.
However, nothing quite prepares you for the odoriferous assault the moment you step foot into the dank medieval curing cellar. But like the natural moulds gathering upon the labyrinthine rows of culatelli hanging inside the 700-year-old cellar, the funkiness grows on you. You come to appreciate the specific conditions that enable the production of culatello—a wee ham about the size of a boxing speed bag, and one that punches way above its weight when it comes to flavour and texture. A ham so prestigious and elusive that it has inspired legions of salumi-aficionados to make pilgrimages to this part of the world.
Pig breeding and salumi-making have deep roots in Emilia-Romagna. Most gourmands with an interest in Italian food are familiar with prosciutto di Parma, mortadella di Bologna, or even Salame Felino. But ask the locals and they’ll tell you that in the world of salumi, Culatello di Zibello is king.
Thanks to a unique sweet-musky flavour and almost velvety texture, it is considered the pinnacle of Italy’s artisanal food culture. And the reason it is so revered is because of its limited and laborious production; it can only be made in eight towns around the Po River region—Busseto, Polesine Parmense, Zibello, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa and Colorno—and is rarely available outside the area.
Meaning “little ass”, culatello was allegedly served at the wedding of Andrea dei Conti Rossi and Giovanna dei Conti Sanvitale in 1332, though official evidence of its production date back to 1735. The pear-shaped boneless ham is made from the choicest cut of the pig’s rump, a small muscular section from the hog’s rear leg, ensuring that the ham never weighs more than 5kg, thus its name.
Culatello di Zibello DOP is seasonal. Production takes place during the autumn and winter months, from about October through February, when the local hogs have been fattened up on legumes and grains. Once their hind legs are boned and divided, the crural muscles are cleaned and trimmed into a pear shape. Over several days, the culatello is massaged with a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic and dry white wine. The meat is then packed in a clean pig’s bladder and bundled tightly with twine before it spends anywhere between 14 and 48 months hanging in the cellars.
And this is where the unique terroir and micro-climate of the lowlands near the Po River does magic on the culatello. The region’s long humid winters, which sees most of the valley shrouded in fog, is a determining factor for the curing of culatello. The cold, moist conditions encourage a completely unique set of moulds to grow on the outside of the culatello, lending the salumi a sweeter, milder but profoundly savoury flavour. As Massimo Spigaroli, chef and farmer-proprietor of Antica Corte Pallavicina says: “The closer to the Po, the better the ham.”
Whereas most other salumi can be left to age unattended in a climate-controlled facility, culatello requires constant attention. Spigaroli explains that in order to aid the formation of the noble moulds on the culatello, one needs to mitigate the fluctuation of heat and humidity; this is done simply by knowing the exact time to open and close the cellar windows to the misty Po breezes. It’s a skill that can only be learnt through intuition, patience and experience.
The hams must also be rotated around the cellar every few months. After the first year, an inspector comes by with a hammer-like tool to tap the meat and check for any oil or bad fermentation. As the culatello ages, it loses up to half its moisture and weight while, crucially, increases in flavour.
Due to its laborious methods, culatello production dwindled to around 300 hams a year back in the 1980s. Right when it was about to fade into obscurity, Spigaroli, together with a few other producers, fought to secure a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) for culatello, even heading the Culatello di Zibello Consortium to enforce centuries-old production methods. Today, an average of 50,000 culatelli is produced a year, a minuscule number compared to the almost 10 million prosciutti di Parma.
Spigaroli himself produces about 5,000 culatelli a year, many already pre-allocated and custom-aged for some of Italy’s and the world’s greatest chefs, including the likes of Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana. Walking through the curing cellar, you see hams tagged for the who’s who of the culinary world. With such limited production, it’s unsurprising that even in Italy, culatello is hard to find outside of the very best shops and restaurants, besides commanding a hefty price tag.
That’s why, to get a true taste of culatello, there is nothing quite like making your way to the bucolic lowlands of the Po River Valley. At Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli has revitalised the historic estate into one comprising a working farm, a modern Michelin-starred restaurant, a rustic family-style hosteria, an 11-room boutique Relais, a culatello museum and, of course, a treasure chest of a culatello curing cellar.
Any meal at the restaurant or hosteria starts with a tasting of the culatello, best enjoyed thinly hand-sliced and paired with the sparkling Fontana used in its making. Sample culatelli aged between 15 and 27 months. Age adds intensity to the velvety-soft texture, which is nearly creamy by the final version as the meats’ subtle flavours develop in complexity. It’s a flavour so special and unique, you can’t find it anywhere else.
This article first appeared in the July issue of A.