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.

corbyitaly 2.jpg

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.

Massimo Spigaroli, the current owner of the estate, named for a prominent noble family that long had extensive property in the Po Valley reaching toward Venice, turned the profits from several generations of running a successful restaurant next door, called Al Cavallino Bianco, and also farming into what is now the most prestigious and best-publicized brand of culatello. (The family legend is that his great-grandfather was fired from being a sharecropper for the local, and national, hero Giuseppe Verdi, for killing a hare and presenting it to the Master, who became enraged and fired him; he found work as a sharecropper on a nearby farm and stayed for thirty years. Within the past 20 years the current generation has bought up the estate where their grandfather had worked and made culatello.) Spigaroli is head of the culatello consortium that gives "Culatello di Zibello" designation to just 25,000 culatellos a year, and his cellar alone accounts for a fifth of them. (Other Italian producers make non-designated culatello, and so do American artisans, but of course none of them have the endless damp of the Po valley, and I doubt any has the mosquitoes, either.)

kummer april30 hamwine.JPG

Photo by Edoardo Fornaciari

When the Prince of Wales turned to Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, for help in turning his heritage pigs into salable cured meats, it was Spigaroli that headed a team that traveled to Cornwall, and who brought back meat to cure in his own cellars as a first test. (I can testify that he is equally at ease with royalty and any butcher who wants to talk pork.) When big-name chefs like Gualtiero Marchesi want culatellos cured just for them, they reserve them from Spigaroli's own flock of 400 Antica Nera (Old Black, a heritage breed Spigaroli searched out and helped revive; the remaining 2100 pigs a year are Large Whites, which he buys) pigs to hang, with a sign that makes the cellar resemble a cigar library or very special Cognac aging room. My favorite detail was a blackboard with "Fochon-Parigi" in decorative chalk script--a particularly felicitous misspelling of the hallowed French gourmet emporium, Fauchon, given its one-letter proximity to cochon, the French word for "pig."

He ages Parmigiano-Reggiano, too, in his cellar: four kinds, from the plains, hills mountains, and from the prized Red Cow, or Vacche Rosso, breed. And he has built six rooms that are a luxurious relays, where Telfeyan welcomed new American arrivals as we were tasting culatello, cheese, and homemade crostata in the huge and beautifully kitted-out kitchens of what will be a very luxurious dining room--hardly bigger than the kitchen, with two glass walls giving onto the Po on one side and the pretty brick courtyard on the other. Now there are sawhorses. Soon there will be tables. I'll want to sit at one.