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Italy's Rarest Ham

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© Courtesy Edoardo Fornaciari for Antica Corte Pallavicina

Culatello production begins during winter months using local pigs that have been fattened on legumes and grains. Once the hind leg is boned and divided, the culatello is massaged for several days, first with garlic and wine, then with salt and pepper. Packed in a clean pig’s bladder (for suppleness) and bundled tightly with twine, the meat does a stint in a cool, dry cantina before cellaring anywhere from 14 to 48 months. Prosciutto di Parma hangs unattended in a climate-controlled facility; culatello needs constant minding. The salumaio must know exactly when to open and close the cellar windows to the misty Po breezes in order to aid the formation of muffa nobile, or noble mold, and keep away excessive heat and humidity. Plus, the hams must be rotated around the cellar every few months. “It requires intuition and patience,” says Spigaroli, likening the process to caring for a baby. As the ham ages, it loses up to half its moisture and weight while gaining in flavor—and price. Culatello di Zibello can sell for almost $100 a pound at fancy food emporiums such as Fauchon in Paris or Peck in Milan.

Unlike Spain’s jamón ibérico, the world’s other top and arguably better-known ham, culatello doesn’t show porcine funkiness, chewiness, or a big, fatty mouthfeel. It’s prized for silkiness, nuanced flavor, and an understated, even mysterious, elegance that suggests a great old Barolo. Technical tutorial over, Spigaroli offers me three variously aged hams from standard Large White pigs. At 20 months the meat is delicate and perfumed; at 27 months moisture loss yields a stronger, saltier character; at 36 months the brine has mellowed into a sweetish multidimensional savor that commands full attention. The best comes last: culatelli from Spigaroli’s own small herd of black pigs—Mora Romagnola and the strong-tasting Nera Parmigiana—which deliver yet another level of flavor intensity. Reviving these heirloom breeds is Spigaroli’s latest obsession. “I make only six hundred of these hams a year,” he says. “They’re unique.”

Tasting it, I pick up scents of dried porcini mushrooms, licorice, hay, even anchovies. The parchment-thin, scallop-edged slices, their hue the faded burgundy of a cardinal’s robe, are best eaten au naturel—or, if you must, with good bread and a smear of butter. Draping culatello over melon or figs is considered a sacrilege. To drink: A fizzy Lambrusco is ideal, and the Fortana that Spigaroli makes from his great-grandfather’s vines pairs nearly as well.

Besides culatello, Spigaroli produces a host of stellar salumi, including spalla cruda (shoulder) and coppa (neck). “A pig is like a Verdi score,” he insists. “You can’t toss anything out.” As it happens, the famous maestro lived just down the road in Busetto, where Spigaroli’s great-grandfather was a sharecropper on the composer’s estate. Verdi likely got a couple of culatelli as a special Christmas offering from his farmers. “Culatello was always so precious,” Spigaroli notes, “the contadino never got to taste it himself.” Instead producers would barter one ham for a whole pig or give it as a gift to local worthies. It was “the Rolex, the Cartier, of edibles,” as Spigaroli puts it.

But by the eighties, with local farmers leaving for factories, culatello production had dwindled to around 300 hams a year. When EU health inspectors started hemming about the traditional practice of exposing raw meat to river mists, culatello was about to join the dodo. Spigaroli sprang into action. His and other producers’ crusading lobby efforts secured a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) for culatello. And Spigaroli headed the Culatello di Zibello Consortium to enforce centuries-old production methods.

That was in 1996, before Slow Food’s marketing glamour. Today, thanks in large part to Spigaroli, culatello’s fame is spreading beyond Italy—with predictably mixed results. Some producers are beginning to forsake the consortium rules for the more relaxed DOP guidelines, and giants like Cremonini and Negroni (better known for supermarket cold cuts) have entered the game, curing their hams in high-tech facilities for 14 months at most. Spigaroli sighs. To him, that’s just an industrial, boneless prosciutto—no mist, no mold, no slow, natural aging. “People smell money,” he says. “How long before culatello ends up bastardized, like aceto balsamico?”

With that, Spigaroli pops a pink curl of meat in his mouth, swallows some Lambrusco, and heads off to check on his pigs.

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