When it comes to Italian cuisine, what could be more quintessentially mouth-watering than salt-cured pork? Our Italy summer travels took us to the Antica Corte Pallavincina estate in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna province, where Culatello, a most prized version of this delicacy is produced.
Cultivating the Tradition of Culatello at Antica Corte Pallavincina
This historic property was repurchased by the great-grandchildren of some of the original tenants and restored to its initial glory after extensive restoration beginning in 1990. Now, the cellars where the Marquesses Pallavicino once cured this beloved meat are once again filled with Culatello.
Our guide from Antica Corte Pallavincina educated us that below this spectacular estate lies the “Cellars of the Corte,” originally constructed in 1320 and used as aging spaces for salami, cheeses and wines.
The Culatello that originated there was once used in the extravagant banquets held in the Sforza Castle. Today, these historic chambers have been restored to their original purpose, and Culatello di Zibello is now available for the world to enjoy, thanks to Chef Massimo Spigaroli, proprietor and Chef at Antica Corte Pallivincina.
During our visit, we learned that only 8 specific villages close to the River Po specialize in creating this particular meat and that historically, Culatello was the first variety of meat to be aged in-house. The area nearest to the River Po has long been the ideal location for the manufacturing of Culatello, due to its relative lack of humidity in comparison to other regions of Italy. In the Middle Ages, the process required to age large pieces of meat was significantly more strenuous and required much more salt than today due to higher humidity levels at that time. Culatello is a much smaller piece of meat, and thus easier to cure, yet quickly became notorious and cherished for its sweet and unique flavor. Only a handful of artisans make the only hams allowed to be labeled Culatello di Zibello DOP and Chef Massimo Spigaroli is considered to be the "maestro".
Our guide informed us that specifically, Culatello utilizes the rear part of the pig’s hind leg. The Culatello production process is allowed to be carried out in the towns of Polesine, Busseto, Zibello, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa or Colorno.
These animals must have been born, raised and butchered in the Emilia Romagna and Lombardy areas. The thigh regions of these special hogs are carefully skinned and deboned in anticipation for curing. Overall, 8 to 48 months of aging in an extremely dry environment are required to create Culatello’s intense and delectable flavor. During this initial aging, the pork loses 30 to 35 percent of its overall mass. The team has a constant watch over the product during this aging and must know when to open and close the cellar windows to the breezes from the River Po. We were told this aids in the formation of noble mold they call muffa nobile, which keeps away excessive heat and humidity. The hams also must be rotated around the cellar every few months.
Our guide went on to explain that the mold that forms on the Culatello during this aging process produces a special smell and taste that adds uniqueness. Meanwhile, utilizing this technique creates an ammonia smell that signals fermentation is occurring. Once the 1st aging is completed, the Culatello are moved to a more humid climate to complete the rest of the aging process.
About 15 years ago, Chef Massimo and the family at Antica Corte Pallavincina realized the specific type of black rustic pig essential to producing Culatello was near extinction. They took it upon themselves to save and restore the breed. Today, there are 20 breeders of this rare variety of hogs that are unique to this area. These pigs enjoy a diet of corn, barley flour and acorns during their lives roaming the property outdoors.
Our Keeper Collection team was lucky enough not only to stay at this spectacular estate, but also to learn more about its fascinating history. The passion and pride behind the Culatello di Zibello DOP that Antica Corte Pallavincina produces is undeniable, and we were truly honored to catch a glimpse into this time-honored tradition. Most of all, we treasured eating the finished product.