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Italy's Rarest Ham

© Courtesy Edoardo Fornaciari for Antica Corte Pallavicina

Massimo Spigaroli’s hams are rare, expensive, and obscenely good.

Long famous for its Parmesan cheese and vintage aceto balsamico, the affluent northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna is probably best known as the country’s pig-happy salumi central. Think rosy rounds of handcrafted mortadella, dusky batons of Felino salami, aromatic haunches of prosciutto di Parma. Among the region’s pedigreed charcuterie, however, the crowning glory is its Culatello di Zibello. A slowly cured boneless ham made from the choicest muscle of the pig’s rump, culatello has such a unique sweet-musky flavor and almost velvety texture that it’s considered the pinnacle of Italy’s artisanal food culture. “Taste culatello, and the best prosciutto seems mundane,” says Michael White, the chef behind the New York Italian hot spots Marea, Alto, and Convivio. Massimo Bottura, the burningly creative chef at the Michelin two-star Osteria Francescana in Modena, adds, “It isn’t just meat, it’s myth.”

White and any number of American chefs would love to showcase culatello on their menus. If only they could. Cured in moldy old cellars by a method that prohibits artificial climate control, culatello isn’t likely to be approved for import by the USDA anytime soon. And with just 30,000 hams produced a year (versus almost ten million prosciutti di Parma), even in Italy culatello is hard to find beyond the very best shops and restaurants. Recently I went on a pilgrimage to the Bassa Parmense, a lowland farming area along the muddy Po River just northwest of Parma, where a handful of artisans make the only hams allowed to be labeled Culatello di Zibello DOP. My quest led me to Massimo Spigaroli, a chef and über-farmer who is Italy’s top salumi producer and high priest of the culatello cult.

Mild-mannered and modest, Spigaroli, 52, greeted me in the frescoed reception room of the squat 14th-century castle that anchors Antica Corte Pallavicina, his historic estate by the Po. He and his brother, Luciano, fourth-generation farmers, bought the property nearly 20 years ago from the aristocratic Pallavicina family, once the Po Valley’s dominant landlords. (Their grandfather worked under the Pallavicinas as a tenant-laborer.) Slowly the brothers transformed the farmland around the castle into an agrarian paradise. Here they raise heirloom pigs and cows, cure their sought-after salumi, make wine and age Parmesan, and cultivate vegetables for the two excellent dining spots they run on the estate: the traditional osteria Al Cavallino Bianco and the more refined and contemporary restaurant Antica Corte. Recently the Spigarolis converted the castle into a rustic-chic six-room hotel.

I have come, however, for the treasures stored in Pallavicina’s dank medieval cellar.

Culatello means, well, ‘little ass,’ ” Spigaroli tells me with a grin, leading the way down. Whereas prosciutti cure in the dry hillside winds above Parma, here, in the riverside humidity, salt won’t reliably penetrate a whole pork leg. So probably since the Middle Ages the haunch has been cured in two boneless pieces: a lesser ham called fiocco and, from the thigh’s meatiest muscle, the culatello. “Smell!” Spigaroli exclaims. “Questo è culatello.” Around us, thousands of pear-shaped hams dangle in picturesque nets of twine. The dusky perfume is so intoxicating, I want to swoon and never revive.

Spigaroli sells some 5,000 culatelli a year, including a limited number that he custom-ages for some of Italy’s greatest chefs, from old-school legends such as Gualtiero Marchesi to avant-gardists like Bottura. Walking through the cellar I spot hams tagged Fauchon, Armani, and—Principe Carlo? “Si, for the Prince of Wales,” Spigaroli confirms ever so modestly. The royal porkophile was introduced to Spigaroli’s handiwork by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. Impressed, he summoned the Italian to Britain, where Spigaroli faced the prince’s dour porcine advisers. “They’d been telling the principe that his Large Black and Tamworth pigs were only good for bacon and sausages,” Spigaroli recounts, “and he wanted me to help prove them wrong.” Would he agree, the prince asked, to cure salumi for him right there in Britain? “It was like being in a movie,” Spigaroli says. But his answer was unequivocal: No, the royal oinkers’ meat must be sent to Bassa Parmense for curing. “I’m an artisan,” Spigaroli told Prince Charles. “My hams need their mold, their old curing cellars, their Po fog.”

So the terroir and microclimate are that crucial? Spigaroli nods vigorously. The brutal year-round dampness is essential for the ham’s signature sweet, profound savor and softness. “The closer to the Po, the better the ham,” says Spigaroli, asserting his credo.

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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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Finding the Prized Pig

The simplest way to sample Massimo Spigaroli’s legendary Culatello di Zibello is to visit the two restaurants on his historic estate, Antica Corte Pallavicina, which is situated along the Po River in Polesine Parmense, between Cremona and Parma (rooms, from $190; 3 Strada del Palazzo Due Torri; 39-052/493-6539; acpallavicina.com). The new, glass-enclosed restaurant inside the castle (dinner, $100) serves culatello degustations and takes regional flavors to alta cucina heights in dishes like guinea fowl baked in clay. A short walk from the castle, on the Po ferry landing, you’ll find Spigaroli’s traditional Al Cavallino Bianco (dinner, $65; 2 Via Sbrisi; 39-05/249-6136), which started as a makeshift osteria. Here, a culatello orgy can be followed by ethereal eggy pastas and such vernacular specialties as river fish fritto misto fried in lard rendered from the owner’s black pigs. The hotel also offers classes in cooking and salumi-making as well as visits to the farm and the curing cellar.

Not far away, in Giuseppe Verdi’s hometown of Busetto, the fabulously folkloric osteria and deli Salsamenteria Storica Baratta (76 Via Roma, Busseto; 39-05/249-1066; salsamenteriabaratta.it)—once frequented by the composer—specializes in the best local salumi, including culatello. Though less refined than Spigaroli’s, it’s still wonderful. In Modena, chef Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (22 Via Stella; 39-05/921-0118; osteriafrancescana.it) offers a menu that brilliantly straddles tradition and innovation. It offers Spigaroli’s 36- and 42-month-old culatello, perfectly paired by the sommelier with a vintage Sauternes—just like foie gras. And in Rome, the chic wine bar and restaurant Roscioli (21 Via dei Giubbonari; 39-06/687-5287; anticofornoroscioli.com) serves up perfect pastas and salads, masterful cheeses, and salumi—including culatello—from Italy’s elite producers.

If you’re looking for a culatello fix in this country, Armandino Batali (Mario’s dad) does a fairly mouthwatering American approximation at Salumi, his lively restaurant and shop in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district (309 Third Ave. South; 206-223-0817; salumicuredmeats.com). His culatello ($40 per pound; limited availability) can be ordered by phone or e-mail.