There’s no better English-language overview of culatello and Culatello di Zibello than that written a few years ago by Kyle Phillips, the sorely missed American wine and food blogger who wrote extensively about Italian enogastronomy and Italy for About.com.
Here’s his entry for culatello, which “means ‘little backside’ and refers to the fact that culatello is made from the major muscle group one finds in a prosciutto — Burton Anderson calls it the Fillet — seasoned and lightly salted, stuffed into a pig’s bladder, tied to give it a pear-like shape, and then hung 8-12 months to cure in farm buildings in the Bassa Parmense, not far from the Po River, where the mist swirls through the windows, interacts with the molds on the walls, and imparts a hauntingly elusive something that makes all other cold cuts pale by comparison.”
Culatello’s spiritual headquarters is the Antica Corte Pallavicina estate in Emilia Romgagna where the Spigaroli brothers run two restaurants, an agriturismo, and a cellar filled with the world’s most coveted culatelli (above).
Barone Pizzini CEO Silvano Brescianini treated the winery group’s blogmaster to dinner there a few weeks ago and they both thrilled to have a chance to speak with Massimo Spigaroli, who is widely considered to be the guardian of traditional culatello production.
The menu at the Michelin-starred namesake restaurant (Ristorante Antica Corte Pallavicina) features a podio (or podium) of aged culatello as a starter. It includes 18-, 27-, 37-month aged Culatello di Zibello.
The nuanced differences in texture, flavor, and sweet/salty balance in each of the three generous tastes were extraordinary.
The podio was followed by the tortelli d’erbette alla parmigiana al doppio burro d’affioramento delle vacche rosse (below): Traditional Parmense stuffed pasta filled with finely chopped Swiss chard, ricotta, and finely grated aged Parmigiano Reggiano dressed in double-top-cream vacche rosse butter.
Vacche rosse or red cows (what we would call “brown” cows in American English) are a traditional Parma breed that produces superior-quality milk. The cheese (primarily Parmigiano Reggiano), butter, and other dairy products they produce are considered the best among the Parma gastronomic intelligentsia.
The estate ages its own wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, we were told, and as a result the Parmigiano Reggiano becomes so dry and crumbly that it produces a superfine powder when grated. This consistency translates into an unbelievably creamy texture in the final dish.
All in all, it was an extraordinary and truly unforgettable experience. And it paired superbly with Barone Pizzini’s 2004 Franciacorta Bagnadore.