Ham of the gods

An Ital­ian fam­ily near Parma sup­plies the rich and fam­ished with per­fect porcine parcels

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - AN­DRE PRE­TO­RIUS

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

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