Culatello - If you've never tasted it, you've missed one of the great flavor sensations of Italy. Prosciutto di Parma is great, but culatello is divine. It's produced only in certain communities near Parma where the fog rolling off the Po River is crucial to the curing process. In the map below, the region of Emilia-Romagna is highlighted in peach, with the province of Parma highlighted in red.
The Italian poet and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio was enamored of this cured meat and in 1891 wrote that culatello "is aged only in the square of land surrounding Zibello, where the air of the Po is often humid and good for the mold that preserves this fatless cut of meat."
The DOP on the label stands for "dominazione origine controllata" and that means that the government has given its seal of approval to the standards used in making and aging the culatello that is produced here at the Antica Corte Pallavicina - a 14th century property that once belonged to the noble Pallavicino family and that almost fell into ruins had it not been for Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli.
Years ago, Massimo and Luciano's great-grandfather left the farm owned by Giuseppe Verdi, and came to work at the Corte Pallavicina. He moved from sharecropper to tenant, and worked the fertile lands here, raising silkworms, cows and pigs, planting poplars, fields of wheat and vegetable gardens. And curing pork in cellars along the Po River, using age-old methods.
Inside the house, it's not hard to imagine what life would have been like at the court when it was inhabited by the Pallavicini. Would a curtsey have been required upon meeting the marquis in the sala dei mesi with its vaulted and frescoed ceilings from the 1500s?
Just think of what it must have looked like illuminated by candlelight on a multi-tiered wrought-iron chandelier.
You might have said daily prayers in small chapel decorated with frescoes, typical for houses owned by nobility.
The kitchen is impressive too. Pantry items are stored on a second level, where a door also opens to the servants' quarters.
Foods were typically cooked in large fireplaces like this one in the kitchen.
But nowadays, chefs making meals for visiting diners to the restaurant here use modern kitchen facilities. It's also possible to stay overnight here, since Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli spent the last 20 years restoring the complex to an agriturismo with six guest rooms. Click here to enter their website and find out more.
But on to the culatello, the reason for this post. About 5,000 to 6,000 culatelli are stored in this basement.
Some of them are earmarked for notables whose names you might recognize - such as England's Prince Charles, Monaco's Prince Albert, Italian clothing designer Armani, and French chef Alain Ducasse.
Culatello is made only in the coldest months - from October through February. The meat used for making culatello comes from only the most meaty part of the leg and butt - the part on the right side of the illustration below. The left side is used for fioccho, a less costly, but still delicious cured meat. With the leftovers of the thigh, strolghino is made, a sausage that had nearly disappeared from the regional cuisine, but that has made a resurgence thanks to the owners of the Antica Corte Pallavicina. The strolghino is aged no longer than 30 days before it's eaten. Coppa, prosciutto and several different types of salami are made here too.
For one week, salt and pepper are massaged into the raw meat as well as Fortana, a locally made sparkling red wine. The meat is then stuffed into a pig's bladder, and tied up with canvas rope. The culatelli are hung in this cellar, where the only temperature control comes from the opening and closing of a solitary window that brings in humidity from the Po River, necessary for the aging process. The aging can vary from 12 to 36 months and each culatello loses about 50 percent of its weight during that period, or about 4 kilos (8 1/2 pounds).
Upstairs, there's a small area where you can buy some of the Corte's products. As you can see, culatello doesn't come cheap. Culatello nero, made from the prized black pigs, costs 110 euros a kilo, or about $142 dollars for 2.2 pounds.
My cousins and I had a tasting at the end of the tour. On the wooden platter below, from the left, you see the strolghino, the culatello, parmigiano reggiano and pieces of focaccia.
Unfortunately, the culatello is not exported to the U.S. -- at least not yet. It is shipped to other European countries and Japan.
Before leaving, we strolled around the grounds and were greeted by a few farm animals including this white peacock.
Its more colorful cousin wanted to make its appearance known too, although the cows didn't seem fazed.
And neither did the cat sleeping in a covered wagon.
A special thanks to my cousins Ivo and Lucia for taking me to Polesine Parmense, where we spent a delightful afternoon at the Antica Corte Pallavicina.