Culatello, The King Of Cured Meats
Little known outside of Italy, Culatello di Zibello DOP, the King of Italian cured meats, is highly celebrated amongst those indigenous to the Parma region.
It’s often said that the Italians keep their best products for themselves and that is true of the Culatello di Zibello. In contrast to that other well know ham from the same region, Prosciutto di Parma, of which there’s an annual production of over 8 million, only 80 thousand Culatello di Zibellos are born in the curing cellars each year, which goes some way to explaining why the Italian’s are so reluctant to let it go: there’s not a lot of it!
References to Culatello are said to date back to the 1300’s, a time when it was given as a gift to wealthy lords, however, the first official mention of Culatello can be found in a document of the Municipality of Parma in 1735. Either way there’s a lot of history to this incomparable cured Italian ham.
Culatello has always been an expensive cured meat and was out of reach for all but the richest families until the early 1900’s so its notoriety didn’t greatly extend beyond the Po River Valley. Because of this what we see today is a product little changed from when it was being proffered as gifts to the nobility back in the 1300’s.
To achieve DOP status Culatello can only be made with the centre muscle of the hind legs of pigs born, raised and slaughtered in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy and cured in the communes of Polesine, Busseto, Zibello, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa and Colorno, all in the province of Parma.
Once prepared the meat is seasoned and salted and left to rest for a couple of days before being massaged enabling the seasoning and salt to penetrate further. After another period of rest, the meat is wrapped in a pork bladder and hand tied with string before being hung in a humid, room-temperature cellar. The temperatures in the curing cellars are not artificially regulated, instead, it is the responsibility of the producer to know exactly when to open the cellar windows to allow the Po River Valley fogs to circulate aiding the development of the moulds that gives Culatello its unique delicate yet bold flavour.
After a year of curing each Culatello is individually hand tested by tapping with a wooden hammer to listen for the telltale signs of bad fermentation. Only when this test has been passed can the Culatello be awarded DOP certification. Curing is then extended for up to 40 months.
Unlike Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello doesn’t need to be paired with sweet fruits but can instead be enjoyed on nothing more than a buttered piece of bread to fully appreciate its silky, delicate yet remarkable flavour and understated elegance. A perfect compliment for your next Italian antipasto platter.
The manually intensive production process, long ageing time and craftsmanship involved in producing this kind of cured meat all add to the price but above all, they are essential ingredients for creating a product of excellence and unmatched quality.