Italy produces over 600 different types of cured meats (or salumi) and 100 types of ham. That’s a staggering array to choose from and so a few weeks back, when a friend who was visiting for the weekend, asked me if I could recommend a few things that he could take home with him, I was momentarily stumped. No one had ever asked me that before. But it was a good question. Where do you go, to get a good piece of salumi?
Firstly, the answer depends on what you are looking for. As in all things food-related in Italy, there is no one-stop shop. If you want cheese, you go to the cheese maker. If you want good wine, you go direct to the vineyard. You want good cured meat… well, you get the idea.
Culatello fit for a Prince!
Specifically, my friend was looking to buy a culatello, the prime pear-shaped ham which many Italians consider the King of cured meats! Now when it comes to buying cured meats, the first rule of thumb is this: territory is everything. If you want to buy a Parma ham, many Italians will tell you that you have to go to the town of Langhirano, near Parma, in the foothills of the Apennines. Likewise, if you want a culatello, you have to travel 30 minutes down the road to the town of Zibello, an area in the province of Parma along the River Po. In fact, the hams produced in this area have achieved EU PDO status – Protected Designation of Origin. In other words, they’re certified good!
They’re so good, in fact, that this is where Prince Charles and Giorgio Armani and other like-minded celebrities shop for their culatello. At the Antica Corte Pallavicina, on the damp, foggy banks of the river Po in Polesine Parmense, Massimo Spigaroli has dedicated his life to the task of raising pigs and making good salami. However, be aware that not all his culatello were born equal. If you want something that extra special, and your wallet can stretch that far, you have to ask for the same stuff that Prince Charles is getting. Otherwise you get the ‘standard’ culatello. Of course, to use the word ‘standard’ in relation to culatello is something of a misnomer. It’s like going into a showroom and asking for a standard Ferrari – it’s still a Ferrari, right?
The black pig of Parma
The difference is that when high-ranking VIPs order culatello, they get hams that are aged for at least two years, they’re organic and they are made from the famed, and rare, black pig of Parma. Until recently, the black pig of Parma was nearing extinction. But thanks to a few committed farmers and salami-makers, it’s successfully making a return to the Italian countryside. One of the leading pioneers is Andrea Bertoletti, an organic pig farmer who runs the Tondinoagriturismo. Andrea re-introduced the ‘Black Pig of Parma’ to his farm about 15 years ago. At this point they had become all but extinct. Today he has over 50 pigs which are allowed to roam freely in over 4 hectares of land.
Andrea’s a hard guy to find. You are more likely to find him down in the brush talking to his pigs than up at the farmhouse. Andrea loves his pigs and that he takes great pride and joy in his work is all too evident. His passion is best evidenced in the tasting. His salami, his ham and his culatello is undoubtedly the very best I’ve tasted since arriving in Italy – and, believe me, I’ve tasted quite a lot of it! But rearing free range organic pigs is costly and so the salami comes at a price. But as I told my friend, there’s no substituting for quality. There’s an Italian saying when it comes to this sort of thing: ‘mangia meno, ma mangia meglio’ (eat less, but eat better).