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A sublime pork journey

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello. Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It's draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in le...

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Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.

Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It's draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.

Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy "gnocco" bread.

And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli's Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour's drive from Modena. You'll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse's Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you'll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.

Prosciutto versus culatello

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Culatello ("little backside" in Italian) is the fillet of the pig's hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn't changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig's or cow's bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.

All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.

Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli's black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.

A tasting

In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli's prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.

Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli's restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli's brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.

The Spigarolis' great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.

Going to the source

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After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach -- glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano -- we tour the caves, down a dungeon's stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs' bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You'll have to go to the source.

You'll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy's Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won't find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.

Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. "What brings you to Italy?" one wants to know.

"We came for the culatello."

"Ah." He smiles. He understands.

Related Topics: FOOD
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