Visiting and eating your way across Italy’s food belt––Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma––will most likely require you to let yours out a notch or two. Besides fast cars, socialist temperament, the oldest university, tortellini and Parmigiano, no other product is more symbolic the region of Emilia-Romagna than Prosciutto di Parma. Yet there’s another cured specialty that is coveted by Italian carnivore food lovers, and that’s culatello, the noble buttocks of the pig.
Still less known by some travelers, Parma ham’s smaller, more delicate sibling has a much more complex flavor than the bone-in version. Briny, sweet, with an aromatic bouquet redolent of the cellars kept humid by the Po River’s rolling fog, where this particular ham ages. Culatello is one of those special, niche Italian foods that one has to experience in its own setting. Culatello doesn’t travel well. Vacuum packing it is sinful, as much as ripping off the fat part of the slice.
But, back to the pig.
Culatello has come a long way. First mentioned in a trade document dated 1735, culatello has been hand-crafted the same way by generations of artisans since the 14th century. Once salted, the deboned hind leg and buttocks of the pig are rolled and shaped into the characteristic pear shape. The culatello then waits like this, “naked” for a first period of rest, during which time it is massaged to promote salt penetration. Salt is the only ingredient in curing culatello.
After a few days the meat is stuffed into natural bladder casing and bound in a snug wide-mesh twine netting, inside which it ages for 12 to 24 months. In the past every family would produce its own culatello this way: the less affluent almost always would do so for sale for the marquises and landowners, the proceeds of which allowed families to buy at least one more pig; or it was kept in the larder for special occasions, such as payment in kinds to the doctor who saved a wife during childbirth, or as dowry for a daughter’s marriage. This, for years, and still to this day, is part of the cultural heritage of many families of Parma and surroundings.
Culatello is included in the list of Slow Food Presidia for the Emilia-Romagna region, and boasts Protected Designation of Origin status under european law. That means it can only be made in a certain area, following very strict rules. The pigs however can be raised in a slightly wider area. Culatello is produced (only 50,000 per year) by about 23 farms in the Consortia (Consorzio di Tutela Culatello DOP) located in the seven municipalities of Polesine, Busseto, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa, Colorno and Zibello.
Even if each producer must abide by the strict rules of the PDO appellation, no culatello is ever like any other. Making it unique and different is––in addition to the quality of the meat and the curing skills of the producer––the cellar where it is aged along with its “native” molds. Over time, many culatello producers in fact stopped making it precisely because their modern homes with heating.
The laborious workmanship, lengthy maturing and pleasurable taste explain the particularly high cost of this product. Culatello should be eaten as is, no accoutrements, no distractions, with your hands, and with a little wine. Our advice is choosing a wine that won’t cover the notes of rose petals and culatello musk typical of this delight. Think Champagne or Franciacorta brut. Alternatively, whites like Trebbiano, Verdicchio or Riesling are also suitable. Pink or orange wines also work.
If you’re interested in exploring Parma and surroundings, and tasting––among other local specialties––some of the best culatello in the world, all you have to do is email us.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.