On our way to Piemonte from Modena, we decided to make a pilgrimage to Antica Corte Pallavicina near Cremona, home to possibly the best Salumi in the world. Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his family have spent over 20 years renovating the palace to its former greatness and bringing back the ancient process of making Culatello, the “king” of cured hams, the way it was meant to be made. We made an arrangement to tour the palace and the ageing cellar, where Sara Bussetti acted as our gracious host and guide.
The Antica Corte Cellars were initially built in 1320 by the Marquesee of Pallavicina for curing salumi (including culatelli), ageing cheese and storing wine. With it’s proximity to Milan, the palace eventually became a vital trading center as one of the stops along the Po river. At some point in the late 1700’s, Mary Louise, the Duchess of Parma (and wife of Napolean) installed guards there to protect the river traffic. With a propensity for flooding, it was no longer viable economically, and around 1850 the palace was split into several rooms used by peasants and fishermen, eventually turning into a forgotten state of ruins. The Spigaroli family acquired the property in 1990 and brought it back to life as a working farm that is also a 6-room luxury inn with its own Michelin starred restaurant.
The tour started inside the castle where we were able to view the antique kitchen and a succession of 3 frescoed rooms, each with their own motif. The old kitchen is now the entrance to the palace, and what remains is the huge hearth where everything was cooked at one time. Based on their painstaking process of restoring the ceiling frescos, they were able to determine what function each of the rooms used to serve. For example, the room next to the kitchen was a dining room and the fresco depicted paintings of the regional food on each face: eels and seafood, salumi, livestock and cheese. Another room was used for commerce where deals were made, as determined by the fresco of emblems of the important families from that time.
From there we proceeded into the cellar caves where the Culatello are cured and Parmigiana cheese mature. Culatello is very different from the more familiar prosciutto, which is made by curing the entire rear hind leg of a pig (including the bone). The making of culatello is much more involved. It starts with a ~20 kilogram rear hind leg of a pig where the meat is separated from the bone. Only the back part of the hind can be made into culatello – the front part of the leg is used to make the fiocco (the poor man’s culatello). The culatello prior to curing usually weighs around 6-7 kilograms. It is massaged with wine and then salt and garlic are applied for the curing process. The salt extracts the liquid from the meat in about 5 days, and then it is sewn into a pig bladder to make it airtight to start its ageing process.
There are several different chambers where the culatelli spend their time, and they get moved from room to room as they age. Air-borne mold from older culatelli passes to the newer ones as part of the process. There is only one window in the cellar where the culatelli are exposed to the nebbia (fog) from the Po river during the colder months. The nebbia is essential to the ageing process, and Antica Corte Pallavicina is the closest culatello curing facility to the Po river, which they say helps make them the best producer (along with an excellent breed of pigs of course). Culatello is aged anywhere from 13-20 months in general, but some are also aged up to 40 months. A cured culatello weighs about 4 kilograms, losing almost half its weight during the ageing process.
There is also a room where culatelli purchased by other chefs and restaurants like Alain Ducasse and Massimo Bottura are stored. There are several hundreds, if not thousands, of culatelli hanging in the cellar. We tried to calculate how many pigs their farm must produce but were easily distracted by the rows of culatelli:
Tasting of their salumi was part of the tour that we booked, and we envisioned that it would take place in the cellar. To our surprise, they led us into the glass-encased elegant Michelin starred restaurant to partake in the meal. They started us off with some grissini and croccantini:
The tasting was really more of a meal which included sparkling water and Lambrusco that was also produced by the Corte:
The carving board included substantial tasting portions of their salumi, with the Culatello placed in the center. Starting from the lower left: fatty and satisfying La Coppa, Strolghino made from the leftover trim of the culatello cured for 30 days, Salame Cresponetto cured for 60 days, Salame Gentile cured for 90 days, Fiocco, and Prosciutto di Parma aged for 24 months:
It was a great way to taste and compare the various salumi. We would like any of the salumi provided eaten on its own. But presented in this fashion, it was easy to see why the Culatello is the king of all salumi. The unctuous complexity and flavor can only be developed by the the special curing process.
A small wooden crate containing 3 different kinds of warm breads was also provided to eat with the salumi:
A salad made from vegetables grown in their garden was also served. The greens and the carrot were refreshingly bitter and helped cleanse the palate between salumi bites:
The meal also included a tasting of their Parmigiana cheese that they also produce:
Finally, a very tasty semifreddo served over berries made for a great dessert:
It was a great stop in our gastronomic tour through Italy. Next time, we hope to stay in one of their rooms and eat pork all day while relaxing on the banks of the Po.
Unfortunately, Culatello is rarely seen in America since the USDA does not allow importation because of the mold. A quick search on Google revealed that there are some artisan producers that are making a domestic version, but none of them seemed to be aged for more than a year, and its impossible to import the nebbia (fog) of the Po river. Tours and tastings at the palace are available year-round during the weekends; but contact them in advance for weekday visits, especially during the winter months.
April 29, 2013 Update: The ban on Italian cured meats have been lifted so we will likely see imported Culatello in the US starting on May 28, 2013. Click to read more information on this from GrubStreet.
Note: The BarFlys are vacationing in Italy. SF posts will return soon; in the meantime, please enjoy these travel-related posts.