The King of Parma Hams


Photo by Edoardo Fornaciari

One of the many good things about teaching is that your former students go on to do interesting things that give you the opportunity to keep learning from them, which is of course the main pleasure of teaching.

This afternoon I took up the invitation of Jennifer Telfeyan, a former student at the one-year master's program in communication at Slow Food's University of Gastronomic Sciences, where I teach writing, to visit a place many students in my classes write about: the beautifully restored, aging cellar of the Antica Corte Pallavicini, an estate dating from 1320, where today 5000 culatellos hang, gathering helpful molds that will turn them into the cured ham that in Italy is always served with the reverence befitting something very rare and very expensive.

Rare and expensive it is, and unavailable in the United States. (Swine flu is the topic here too, of course; an Italian call-in show I was just listening to featured an annoyed, patriotic caller who wanted to remind the world that Italy, the world capital of gastronomy, makes the world's best pork products, which have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with getting swine flu--which for all he knew and what he was hearing, actually started with a human who gave it to a pig.)

Culatello tastes and looks very different from prosciutto. The flavor is more delicate and less hammy than prosciutto, the experience more complex.

Culatello is often spoken of as the version of prosciutto per eccelenza, the most noble form that exists. And the area around Parma, you won't need reminding, is certainly prosciutto territory. And culatello is indeed a large muscle part of the pork leg that, whole, becomes prosciutto: the boned thigh, considered the most precious part. But culatello is so different in texture, size and flavor that it really shouldn't be compared with prosciutto.

Prosciutto is just salted; culatello is rubbed with wine, salt, pepper, and pressed garlic, and then wrapped in a pig bladder--the reason it hasn't been approved for sale in the United States. The casing is sewn up one side and the pear-shaped ham tied with twine in an elaborate spider-web pattern that, corset-like, gives it vertical lobes, like a casaba melon. After the first 30 days it is never refrigerated. Besides the spice-wine cure and the pig bladder, and the much smaller dimensions of the final product--it starts with less than half the full leg, and loses a greater proportion of moisture during aging than prosciutto--the difference lies in the atmosphere in which it cures. Prosciutto needs dry mountain breezes along with sea breezes, and so the huge drying rooms of prosciutto factories are built on hillsides.

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Photo by Edoardo Fornaciari

Culatello needs fog and constant damp air, so the curing rooms where they age for 16 months to three years (or longer) are exceedingly damp basements near the river Po--a wet lowland known for its rice paddies and baseball-sized mosquitoes, with hot, humid summers and chilly, wet winters. Telfeyan showed me a double window in the cellar left open year-round, to make the most of the dampness, nicely illustrated by yet another in the stream of downpours that have barely let up since I arrived. ("Spring hasn't come yet," a friend remarked--I guess winters really are wet here.)

And culatello tastes and looks very different from prosciutto. It's papery where prosciutto is silken; lightly salted and faintly spiced where prosciutto is often unsubtle salted; mostly lean rounds and half the size of a standard slice of prosciutto, with pretty scalloped borders from the twined lobes (don't worry, the bladder gets peeled off after the finished culatello is soaked in wine and water for a while). The flavor is altogether more delicate and less hammy than prosciutto, the experience more complex than the standard prosciutto, if decidedly sparer and less sumptuous.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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