In 1976 when Pamela Minozzi’s father Angelo started turning local pigs into exquisite cuts of salumi, the most prestigious part of the animal was a delicacy that the food connoisseurs of Emilia-Romagna had kept mostly to themselves for hundreds of years. Not any more, because Culatello di Zibello can now be found on the menus of top Italian restaurants throughout Europe, including for example Locanda Locatelli in London where it’s offered as an antipasto with gnocco fritto.
With less than 100,000 cuts of this delicious cured pork produced every year, culatello will always be an expensive delicacy that is difficult to find, even in Italy, so it is something not to be missed whenever you’re visiting Parma.
Pamela and her husband Alberto gave us a tour of their small production facility in Busseto and explained the entire process to us and of course we bought some culatello to bring back to Lucca for the Christmas period.
What exactly is Culatello di Zibello?
Most people are familiar with prosciutto which is produced throughout Italy, though the most famous and the best examples are Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele (a small commune in the Province of Udine in the Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia).
Whereas prosciutto is made from the whole thigh of the pig, culatello can only be made from the tender buttock muscles at the very top of the hind legs, with the rind and bones removed. So it comprises just a tiny portion of the animal and after losing about half of its mass during the typical 24 month curing process the two culatelli for each pig will weigh only about 9 pounds each when sold.
For a culatello to be stamped and certified as DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta) or now more commonly written PDO, it can only be produced in a very small area of Emilia sandwiched between the Po river and the main autostrada that runs from Milan to Bologna, effectively an area that is about half way between the cities of Parma and Cremona and comprises a land mass only about 25 miles wide by 8 miles deep.
Culatello di Zibello is the name of the PDO but in fact there are 8 small communities where production can take place and Busseto is one of those, where Minozzi is located and where the great composer Giuseppe Verdi was born and where he acquired a large estate once fame and fortune arrived.
The pigs themselves must be raised in either Lombardia or Emilia-Romagna and only three breeds are permitted, the Large White (originally a Yorkshire breed of pig), the Italian Landrace (originally Danish) and Duroc (originally North American).
How is Culatello made?
Salumificio Minozzi is one of only 23 authorized producers and the procedures followed by Pamela and her husband Alberto for the 500-600 culatelli they process every year are the same as those undertaken by all the others and follow the strict guidelines laid down by the Consortium for the Protection of Culatello di Zibello, an organization set up in 2009 to guarantee the traditions and authenticity of the ‘King of Cold Cuts’.
Producing culatello is a labor intensive process at every stage.
When a culatello arrives at the Minozzi Salumificio in Busseto, Alberto first debones it and then massages salt, pepper, wine and garlic into the meat, after which it is put into cold storage for a period of 6 months to allow the liquid to drain off and for the culatello to dry.
It is then squeezed into a cleaned pig’s bladder and tied tightly with natural twine to eliminate any air pockets and hung from the rafters to cure. The total maturation period is typically about two years with 14 months being the absolute minimum.
The temperature and the humidity in the storage room will change with the seasons and Pamela will open the doors and windows each morning in winter to let the fog and humidity enter.
During the curing process a mold will slowly grow on the outside of the bladder and every few months when it becomes excessive the culatello will be taken down, the surface of the bladder cleaned and then tied up again and rehung. After many years Alberto has now developed an allergy to this mold and so Pamela and Alberto now they divide the workload to minimize his exposure to it.
Why such a small production zone?
It is the micro climate of this small area of the Bassa Parmense that is key to understanding the product. Hot humid summers are followed by cold foggy winters and it’s the constant humidity in the air that creates the ideal conditions for the slow formation of mould, softening the meat and imparting a sweet fragrance to it.
How to serve Culatello?
Culatello is an expensive delicacy that most people will experience in a restaurant as an antipasto. If, like us, you are able to buy a 3 pound piece to take home then it will first be cleaned and removed from the bladder with the yellow fat trimmed and all the mold removed, leaving just the meat and white fat. It will then be vacuum sealed for you and will last for a few months in a cool environment.
The most important task is then to slice it as thinly as possible and never to cook it, simply eat it by itself or with some bread but it needs no other embellishment.
Other highly prized salumi from the Bassa Parmense:
Costing anywhere from 70-80 euros per kilo, culatello is clearly not an everyday dish and is typically bought by restaurants or by Italians in Emilia-Romagna for their Christmas festivities. There are more affordable charcuterie products that are produced by Alberto and Pamela for both the restaurant trade and individuals who visit their premises in Busseto.
The next part of the leg down from culatello, ie the back of the upper thigh just below the buttocks, is called fiocchetto or fiocco di culatello. It’s smaller and leaner than culatello and produced in the same fashion, from the same breed of pigs and in the same geographic area as culatello but, being smaller in size, the minimum permitted aging period is 8 months with a year being more typical. It also sells for about half the price of culatello.
Trimmings from both the culatello and fiochetto are used to make what for us is one of the best tasting and least fatty salumi, called strolghino, and it is widely available throughout supermarkets in Italy.
Alberto and Pamela also produce two cuts from the pig's neck that are highly prized by Italians and increasingly in foreign markets also. Both require 7-8 months of maturation. Coppa is a specific muscle that in the US is not typically separated from the whole pork shoulder or Boston Butt, but increasingly it is being given the respect that Italians have always afforded it, except that in the US it is smoked and slow roasted rather than cured.
Spalla Cruda di Palasone is another specialist part of the pig's shoulder known as the 'Queen of Salumi' for its fragrance and the drizzle of fat that keeps it sweet and soft. Finally, they also produce a seasoned Pancetta that is so hard to work and tie manually that 10 per day is the maximum that Alberto can manage before physical exhaustion sets in.
None of the best cuts of salumi are particularly cheap in Italy though it should be said that 100 grams (or 'un etto' as commonly spoken in Italian shops) is sufficient as an antipasto for two people.
Using one of our local supermarkets in Lucca as an example of the best prices you are likely to find outside Emilia, small amounts of Prosciutto di Parma DOP and Prosciutto di Modena DOP both retail for about 40 euros/kilo. Artisan producers of local prosciutto in other famous locations such as Prosciutto di Amatrice IGT, Prosciutto di Norcia IGT or Prosciutto del Pratomagno will see their product sold for over 60 euros/kilo and then at the top of the pyramid a small pre-sliced quantity of Culatello will retail at over 130 euros/kilo.
Verdi grew up in a house in Le Roncole which is in the district of Busseto and not far from Minozzi. It is now a small museum and nearby is the much larger property he bought as an adult in Sant’Agata di Villanova and lived in for exactly 50 years until his death in 1901.
Also nearby (photo below) is the large estate where the epic saga Novecento (1900) was filmed in 1976, the same year that Angelo Minozzi was starting the family business with his first pig. The film was epic in every way, including its unprecedented length; it was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and had a star-studded cast as well as music by Ennio Morricone. Despite the producer apparently locking Bertoluccio out of the editing room while he hacked it down to a mere 3 hours, the film met with very mixed reviews both on release and ever since. And in fact I remember years ago falling asleep before reaching the end.