Parma hams and culatello
They’re hanging from the ceiling, bat-like, smelly and dusty. In the darkened basement you feel like they could suddenly come alive, turn on you in a swarm and leave you with no defences.
They look menacing – partly because of the dimly-lit and enclosed environment, partly because of their resemblance to cocoons of dangerous and exotic predators, and partly because of the unknown. What are they?
Well, they’re parma hams. In this cellar underneath an old castle in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, more than five thousand pieces of pig are being turned into one of the local delicacies – the ‘culatello’ variety of prosciutto.
It’s one of the finest pork products you will ever eat! There’s a reason some of the world’s rich and famous order their own supplies from here – see if you can spot a celebrity name in this batch.
What is culatello?
The professionals here at Antica Corte Pallavicina take their work seriously. It is a fine art to create meat like this and they’ve been using the same technique for generations.
First, the softest part of the upper thigh is cut off to be used. It’s massaged with wine and garlic and then with salt and pepper. It’s left to rest for five days before being put into a pig bladder. It’s tied up and then hung in this cellar.
There’s a reason all the hanging hams are dusty and mouldy. They’ll stay suspended from the ceiling for at least twelve months… and sometimes for as long as forty months!
Once they are ready, the bundles will be taken down, the bladder will be removed and the meat will be left wrapped in a cool cloth for two days. When the cloth is removed, the meat must be sliced within one hour.
To eat true culatello you must be here in the Emilia Romagna region because transporting it will ruin the delicate taste.
So much effort and care goes into ensuring the meat is of the highest quality. It starts well before the pig is even slaughtered.
At Antica Corte Pallavicina, they grow their own maize, barley and bran to feed to the animals. I would’ve said the pigs eat better than the humans… but that was before I had my chance to taste the culatello.
We eat it with cheese – the parmigiano-reggiano – which this region is also famous for. And drink it with a chilled lambrusco made locally.
We’re finally out of the cellar, in the castle’s courtyard, watching the sun go down over the river nearby while peacocks meander through the grounds. The balance of the flavours is perfect. There’s a harmony with our setting too.
So much time has gone into preparing this meal – months and months. So much care has been taken with every step along the way. It’s a pleasure to take the time and care to savour the moment.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Emilia Romagna tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.