Ham of the gods
An Italian family near Parma supplies the rich and famished with perfect porcine parcels
WE descend a flight of ancient stone stairs to a 14th-century cellar, where Zeno Ferrari flicks the light switch. From the ceiling and on strings along the walls hangs a phalanx of oddly shaped objects, like outsized grape bunches. They are not fruit, but hams encased in pig bladders: culatello, the apotheosis of what is known the world over as Parma ham.
I am in the countryside near Parma, an hour southeast of Milan, at Antica Corte Pallavicina, a hotel- cumrestaurant-cum-salumeria owned by the brothers Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli. The hotel and restaurant are justly renowned, but highest praise is reserved for the singular salumi and hams produced by the Spigaroli family.
Ferrari draws a rough picture to explain where a culatello comes from. Imagine the shape of a whole prosciutto, the cured leg of a pig. Onthe front of the leg is a small muscle, opposite is the main ‘‘buttock’’ muscle. The smaller, less-prized muscle is called the fiocco; the larger is used to make culatello (any scraps of meat left on the bone after the muscle is removed are made into a salumi called strolghino).
‘‘So, you have to destroy a prosciutto to make a culatello,’’ Zeno says, proclaiming the superiority of the latter.
There are many industrial culatelli manufacturers, but at Pallavicina the Spigarolis use traditional methods that enjoy the imprimatur of the Slow Food movement. The pork is cured in salt, pepper and the region’s sparkling red lambrusco for four to five days, and massaged several times with the mixture during this process.
The meat is put inside a cleaned pig’s bladder, which is tied tightly, creating the grape-bunch appearance, and the nascent culatello is then hung in the cellar to mature.
Ferrari leads me to an open window facing the Po River. Culatello is made only in the cold months from Novem- ber to March, he tells me, and a key to its ageing process is the mist from the Po that enters through the window in autumn and the cold air in winter. There is no artificial temperature control: in summer the window is closed to ensure the space remains cool.
New culatello starts here, in front of the window, and as it ages — in some cases for up to 40 months — it is moved deeper into the cellar. The oldest hams hang at the very end, where we entered.
That space also houses culatello made from black pigs. About a decade ago, Massimo Spigaroli rediscovered an ancient local pig breed known as the antica nera parmigiano. He now farms them himself, producing between 800 and 1000 culatelli a year for an illustrious clientele. I spy handwritten signs allocating the bundles to the likes of Bulgari, Armani, Prince Charles and Prince Albert of Monaco.
Upstairs in Al Cavallino Bianco restaurant, I choose a selection of culatelli as a starter. Two varieties are from white pigs aged for 18 and 27 months respectively; the third from a black pig, aged for 37 months.
The youngest most resembles the Parma ham I am used to. The oldest is more challenging and yet more satisfying: meltingly tender and with an intense flavour, but a taste that reveals a hint of the sweetness of decay.
Spigaroli, every inch the farmerchef, bustles about in a white chef’s jacket, stoking a fire before heading into the kitchen. His ancestors were share croppers on the composer Giuseppe Verdi’s estate before they bought Pallavicina in the 19th century. Verdi, too, was one of the illustrious names on the family’s ham distribution list.
Farmer-chef Massimo Spigaroli holds a prized culatello in the cellar at Antica Corte Pallavicina