The noblest of all cold cuts, the world-acclaimed masterpiece of pork charcuterie goes under the name of Culatello di Zibello.
Those who think that all you need is a great pig to make a great culatello are only half right. It takes the expert hands of a pork butcher and the mists of Parma, its homeland. An enchanted land where the city descends to meet the waters of the river Po, in nothern Italy.
Culatello ham originates from the area of Parma, Busseto to be precise, close to the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi who, apparently, was extremely fond of it. Such a highly-prized product obviously had a somewhat restricted market but we do know that Culatello was produced as early as the 1700s and historical documents of the period evidence that this practice was already long-consolidated in the area.
What is Culatello?
Culatello is a large oval-shaped ham weighing approximately 4 kg.
Not all pigs can aspire to becoming culatello. They must be adult pigs of a considerable weight, born and bred in certain regions of north and central Italy, belonging exclusively to the Large White Landrance and Duroc breeds, at least nine months old and weighing on average 160 kilograms.
Finally, only the prime cut of the back inside leg is used to produce this great charcuterie speciality.
The PDO seal awarded to Culatello di Zibello stipulates that its processing and ageing may only take place in the eight municipalities of the so-called Bassa Parmense, which lie to the south of the Po river: Busseto, Roccabianca, Polesine, Zibello, San Secondo, Sissa, Soragna and Colorno.
This part of Italy has the perfect micro climate for ageing legs of pork, enwrapped in the fog of its long winters. It can be no coincidence that the Consortium of Culatello di Zibello has decreed that this product may only be processed between October and February.
How is Culatello made?
The leg of pork is entirely processed by hand: so away with the rind and all excess fat. The entire operation must be effected rapidly and in any case no later than 24 hours from slaughter.
It is worth knowing that the amount of salt defines a fine Culatello. This is because salt conceals defects. Tradition requires the percentage of salt to be around 3.3%, calculated according to the weight of the leg. Once the salting process is complete, the Culatello is left to rest in a cold room at a temperature ranging between 0 and 5°C.
The meat is then cured using a precisely calculated mixture of salt and pepper; after a good massage, the culatello hams are left to rest for 7- 8 days in a cool place, with a mixture of red wine and crushed garlic. In the skilled hands of the pork butcher, each piece is modelled to strike a balance between the lean and fatty parts and is then encased in a pig's bladder.
Finally, the Culatello is trussed up with twine. A PDO Culatello di Zibello must be aged for at least 10 months, starting from the salting process.
However, the inspection process does not end here: once aged, the so-called horse bone "fibula" comes into play to effect the olfactory test. This very ancient and fundamental tool is used to penetrate the muscle mass at various points (lean meat and fat) to absorb the aromas of the Culatello. Then it is up to the nose of the “puntatore” to establish its sapidity or sweetness or to discern any defects in its processing which would otherwise be invisible. The real value of the culatello is assessed.
What does this heirloom salumi actually taste like? It vaguely recalls the Sunday roast, rosemary, roses and musk. The salt content must be moderate, the fat must be thick and white and melt on the palate with a sweet buttery consistency.
The most classical pairing is with melon or figs but chefs, gourmets and impassioned food lovers consider Culatello too precious a delicacy to use in cooking, and only do so as a rare exception. As with all great products, it needs no pairing nor excessive handling, but should be served just as it is, because any form of manipulation would detract from its perfection.
For enjoying at room temperature, finely sliced and served with country-style bread and an Italian local wine, such as Fortana, which is slightly sweet and not too alcoholic.