Culatello di Zibello – the words flow from the tongue as easily and sweetly as the meat itself folds onto the tongue. These are the Italian hams that all others in Italy and arguably the world bow to. My son and I wanted to see where they came from and with an introduction from Massimo Bottura and Enrico Vignoli, we got to visit the producer who is considered by many cognoscenti to make the very best.
Antica Corte Pallavicina, run by the Spigaroli family, but named after the original 14th Century owners and producers of culatello, sits in Polesine Parmense, just outside of Zibello. It is an ancient early Renaissance era castle situated adjacent to the Po. We arrived just after a bus full of tourists. My initial disappointment waned as it soon became apparent that they would not be a hindrance to us. We waited a few minutes and they were soon gone.
Zeno, a young employee of ACP, was our personal guide. We started in the old kitchen of the house. It was clear that while the cow is quite important throughout Parma and Emiglia-Romagna, the pig is king in this particular area.
He took us on a brief tour of the ancient home with its beautiful objets d’art and frescoes of ancient Greek and Roman mythology, explaining that in Renaissance times,”they (the frescoes) showed that the family was cultured, since they knew their mythology.”
We eventually wound our way to the heart of the house. In most homes that would probably be the kitchen, but here it was the cellar, but this was no ordinary cellar. This is a cellar where their famous culatelli are hung to cure. Zeno took my son and I down to this heavenly 14th Century basement, explaining the process of making culatello. The culatello is made from the single large muscle from the rear thigh of the pig, The other smaller, major muscle group is made into another ham, a fiocco, which is not considered to be as special. The culatello is separated from the bone and while still fresh, seasoned with salt, pepper and Fortana wine. The meat is then massaged every day for at least one week in order to let the seasoning penetrate it. At this point, the meat is placed in a pig’s bladder and tied up with canvas rope in a completely artisanal product.
At ACP, they use two breeds of pigs. The more common one for their basic (but still extraordinary) product is from the white pig.
Zeno brought us into a special part of the aging cellar, where their best culatelli hang for up to 36 months. This was the part of the cellar where the culatelli from the black pigs hung and which had been reserved for select buyers. We could see hams marked for La Francescana, Gualtiero Marchesi, Alain Ducasse, Armani and Prince Charles, amongst others. This was a high rent district.
Their premiere product is made from the black pig, an ancient cross between the Spanish Iberico and a local breed, the Mora Romagnola. This cross occurred at a time when the Spanish controlled the area. While these pigs do not roam the oak forests and eat acorns like some of their Spanish cousins, they are well fed and cared for. Pallavicina raises their own black pigs, but buys the white pigs for their regular products from nearby farms.
Less rarified white pig culatelli are aged for less time in a different room and then there is a room for aging Parmigiano cheeses from select producers, including cheeses made with milk from the rare vaca bianca di Modena, the red cow and others. The humidity and temperature of the cellar are controlled by the one window in the cellar. There are no electronic temperature controls.
Zeno led us to the restaurant where we had a reservation for lunch. The restaurant has a Michelin star and may deserve more.
It is situated in a glass-enclosed passageway with one side looking towards the levees of the Po and the other towards the main courtyard of the complex, where peacocks and peahens could be viewed wandering along.
Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to, we didn’t have time for a full tasting menu (they had one based upon culatello, another based upon typical dishes of the region and then a creative menu), so we ordered a la carte.
The initial bread offering of “music paper” and grissini was crisp, light and flavorful. These were great to nibble on, while we waited for more from the kitchen.
We were sent a beautiful and pristine garden salad with everything from their own gardens.
We were sent an amuse of cotechino with pumpkin chutney. Cotechino is a fresh sausage made from pork, fatback and pork rind that was popularized in and around Modena early in the 16th Century. The cotechino was quite tasty as was the chutney, although I found the latter to be a bit too sweet for my preference.
The three different kinds of focaccia (wheat, honey and rosemary) were spongy and good, though I would have liked them better if they were a bit crunchier on the outside. They were served with delicious Parmigiano butter, made from the cream left over from the making of the cheese.
We started by sharing a sampling platter of culatelli that was brought out under a cloche. There were three different kinds. One was from the white pig aged 18 months. Another white pig culatello was aged for27 months. This was even sweeter and more concentrated than the excellent 18 month culatello. These were both amongst the best hams I have ever had, but then there was the culatello from the black pig aged for 37 months. This one had such extraordinary depth of flavor and intense umami. It was totally and unequivocally delicious, rivaling the best Jamones Ibericos de Bellota that I have eaten. The giardiniera served with the culatelli tasted fresh and light.
The rest of the lunch was excellent as well. My son had cheese filled tortelli (they were called “tortelli” but looked to me like ravioli) with an amazingly wonderful Parmesan cream sauce. It was decadent, but ethereally light.
I had agnoletti with a sauce made from peas, asparagus and broad beans. The agnolotti were stuffed with breast of pork. This was also a magnificent dish of pasta.
My son then had a poached egg with asparagus, that he loved and I never even got to taste. He called the dish “amazing.”
While my son enjoyed his egg and asparagus, I got to select from a cheese cart that focused on a variety of quality Parmigiani from milks of various breeds of cows with different periods of aging as well as a few other choice products.
My plate had three cheeses. Clockwise from left to right I enjoyed their own Stracchino, followed by a twenty month old Parmigiano from Pianura and a thirty seven month old Parmigiano from milk from the red cow. The cheeses were exceptional. The stracchino is a cheese that is typically eaten without aging, but here, it was aged and quite fine.
In the center of the plate, there was a quince mostarda to complement the cheeses. It was sweet and piquant – a superb mostarda.With regrets, we passed on ordering desserts,…
…but still had our fill of wonderful sweets with their petits fours.
After lunch, my son and I had the opportunity to meet Massimo Spigaroli, the chef/owner of the restaurant as well as the person responsible for the wonderful culatelli and other salumi and cheeses of the property. His brother, Luciano, runs the sister restaurant located a stone’s throw down the road, Ai Cavallino Bianco.
Our day at ACP was not over, even though lunch was. Zeno offered to take us to the nearby farm where some of their black pigs are raised. Even better, he suggested that we travel by bicycle. We took a lovely 15 minute ride through the countryside, to see the animals as well as the rest of the farm, which included an area for their wide variety of true free range heritage breed fowl and their vineyards.
The above video, the story of the Spigaroli Family and Antica Corte Pallavicina, available on Youtube, is best appreciated with a good understanding of Italian, however, it is still instructive and beautiful even without that.
We had intended to stay just a little while then head back to Maranello, just south of Modena to visit the Ferrari Museum, but we had stayed at ACP much longer than we had expected. Nevertheless, I thought we might be able to make it to the museum before it closed, so we drove there anyway. Stay tuned…