The Mythical Culatello di Zibello

In between Cremona and Ferrara the Po river winds its way through an area of fertile agricultural land called the Bassa Parmense. It is famous for 3 things: Verdi (who was born in Busseto), fog and Culatello di Zibello.

Our jaw droppingly expensive Culatello di Zibello is made in Polesine by l’Antica Corte Pallavicina. This beautiful, 14th century estate sits on the banks of the river Po and is made even more imposing by the relentlessly flat landscape of the Bassa that surrounds it. More precisely, it stands on the dikes that protect it from the waters of the Po when the river is in spate. The rest of the year the course of the Po is some 50m away. The 15th century cellar is unusual because it was built for curing meats, with just one original north-facing window to let in the river fog and a small west facing one to enable the air to circulate inside.

The idea of thick river fog doesn’t immediately conjure up ideal conditions for dry curing meat and this is why Culatelli di Zibello all have the bone and the rind removed: only a thin pigs bladder protects the meat from the air to ensure that they don’t spoil. The fogs that blanket the area throughout autumn and winter prevent them drying out too much and even in summer when temperatures in the cellar reach 25ºC the air is still humid.

They have counted over 1000 different types of bacteria in the cellar, each one of them friendly (mainly lactobacilli and leuconostocs) and working its own bit of magic on the 5000 Culatelli di Zibello that hang there, helping break down bland meat proteins and fats into smaller, intensely savoury and aromatic molecules.

Every four weeks the younger culatelli are brushed of their moulds to stop too much bacterial action in the meat but the older ones are left untouched in the stillest, dampest part of the cellar. Intricate webs of grey-brown mould hang thickly from their casings and this was where we found this sign. S.A.R stands for Sua Altezza Reale or His Royal Highness: Prince Charles has got a taste for the good stuff.

No other culatello producer can age for as long as l’Antica Corte Pallavicina (ours are up to 30 months old) because none can match the unique conditions of their medieval cellar or the experience of Massimo Spigaroli who makes them. It is unique among Italian cured meats and, as such, is worth a try. Even if, at £150kg, you decide to stick with Parma ham..