A Spa Unlike Any Other: The Rise of Cured Meat Therapy

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At one restaurant in Italy, pork and relaxation are one and the same—and you can even experience a mortadella facial

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It was an invitation I couldn't refuse, from my friend Ivan Bertelli, host and manic animator of Hosteria da Ivan outside Parma. I was invited for a session of salumoterapia—cured meat therapy. Think Italian spa meets pork, a re-tox program. Ivan, like most Italians, is a spa veteran and pairs this knowledge with two obsessions: cured pork and sparkling wine. Sounds like therapy I could get behind. Warning: It's not for vegetarians or those watching their cholesterol.

I've been to my share of Italian thermal spring spas offering widely different treatments and cures, not quite as romantic as they sound. Most are focused on waters (frequently smelly) to drink, inhale, or bathe in, with diuretic, laxative, restorative qualities. Food and wine aren't part of the equation. The dress code is robes and slippers. The spookiest spa I've encountered featured a thermal grotto with lounges—I was warned to watch out for snakes that might drop from the ceiling. I bailed.

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I took the train to Parma, connected with Ivan's friend Aldo from the winery Ronci di Nepi on the train. We were met by prosciutto maker Luca Baratta, who explained all about his special prosciutto on our way to the restaurant. There was a party in the garden behind the restaurant, with winemakers and food artisans at tables with samples. Ivan handed me a glass of Marie Stuart Champagne. Luciano Cattalani from the Red Cow Consortium was carving hunks of his fantastic Parmigiano, Mario Chiaradia from Zago pouring his creamy, malty beer. I chatted with goat cheese specialist Gian Domenico Negro and Emanuele Pisaroni, presenting fruit juices and giardiniera pickled vegetables. I showed restraint since I knew that their products would be served for dinner.

Then I checked out the salumoterapia salon—adorable poster on the door, crates of Champagne and Italian wines lining the walls, prosciutto, culatello, and salami hanging from the beamed ceiling, one big table. The treatment consisted of deep breathing, eating, and drinking. Participants were served a plate of choice salumi—sliced prosciutto, culatello, salami, and Tuscan head cheese from Simone Fracassi. Then we were given large cloth napkins, to be placed over one's head and the plate, deeply inhaling the porky perfumes, stimulating salivary glands and appetite. Remove napkin, taste salumi, and drink sparkling wine—Champagne, Italian sparklers, or Lambrusco. Then head for dinner. I felt renewed.

The dining room was packed with producers, friends and fans of Ivan. As usual, the table was set with foiette, little white ceramic bowls (traditional) that Lambrusco is served in. We drank Cavicchioli's Vigna del Cristo, saluting owner Federica Cavicchioli at the next table. Since not everyone had participated in the salumoterapia session, the meal began with the salumi selection, accompanied by giardiniera, the only vegetable of the evening. It was followed by superb lasagna, layers of red cow Parmigiano fonduta instead of béchamel and a tomato-less ragu. Gian Domenico's goat cheese was served with savory hazelnut flour goat cheese cookies from Caffe Sicilia. Pure white fior di latte gelato made with red cow milk was uber-milky, fantastic plain or topped with balsamico or Torrefazione Lady Café's coffee paste (in a tube like toothpaste). Then jarred fruit, peaches cooked in Moscato from Fonterosa, and espresso from Lady Café.

Salumoterapia is available on request before any lunch or dinner—Ivan can arrange a session at the drop of a hat. Prosciutto wraps and mortadella mask can be done any time: a lard massage has to be booked in advance. Ivan told me about the cosmetic treatments and cures that he's got in mind for regularly scheduled sessions in the future. Mortadella mask—one large slice, bite out holes for eyes, nose and mouth, and apply to the face, great skin softener. Lardo massage. Prosciutto wrap for tennis elbow or knee problems. All accompanied by sparkling wine. I'll be back for another session.

Main image: La Madia Travelfood/Gourmadia S.r.l.

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Faith Willinger is a chef, author, and born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and has spent over 30 years searching for the best food from the Alps to Sicily. More

Faith Heller Willinger is a born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and was seduced by Italian regional cooking. Faith has spent more than 30 years searching for the best food and wine, as well as the world beyond the table from the Alps to Sicily. She has no regrets about mileage or calories. Faith was awarded the prestigious San Pellegrino award for outstanding work as an ambassador of Italian cooking. She lives full-time in Florence with her Tuscan husband, Massimo. Her son Max lives in Milan. She's the author of the bestselling (9th printing) guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White & Greens, and the narrative recipe book Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Faith teaches in her kitchen in Florence on Wednesdays, supplied with freshly picked produce from her favorite farmers. Check out her web site at www.faithwillinger.com.
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