After a stop in Munich to see some friends and a few hours drive to Parma I was ready to start my little tour of Emilia Romagna in the best of ways: seeing how the king of Italian salumi, Culatello di Zibello D.O.P., is made. For this I would rely on the fantastic help of Ore Dagan. For those who don't know him, let me spend a few words on a great guy: Ore is a CIA Culinary Arts B.P.S. who, following his love for Italian food, moved to Italy to successfully complete Slow Food's Master of Italian Cooking, writing a great blog about it on the eGullet forums in the process. He's now staging at Al Vedel, both a restaurant and a salumi producer, learning the Italian art of transforming pigs into delicious cured meats. (If you want to read more about Ore's Italian adventures do not miss his nice blog, Potential Gold.)
But back to Culatello di Zibello. Why does it deserve the title of king among Italian salumi? The simplest way to explain this is to take a slice of Culatello on a buttered slice of bread: the taste alone should be enough to convince you. Thanks to the choice of meat, its preparation and its aging, first in dry then moist rooms, Culatello is a deliciously mellow, sweet yet aromatic cured meat. It's usually aged 12 to 14 months minimum but older Culatelli are for my taste even more seducing. Add to this the fact that to make a Culatello you have to waste a Prosciutto, and you'll have a further economic reason to name this salume as "the king".
After a short drive me and my father, who joined me in Parma for the first three days of my Italy trip, were shown into the work area. Ore showed us the main preparation steps of culatello, plus those of the other delicious products Al Vedel makes: salame gentile, salame strolghino, spalla cruda, spalla cotta, cotechino, fiocchetto, coppa and pancetta arrotolata. I'll sum them up here, hoping to have caught all the important details (in case Ore, feel free to correct my mistakes). The production rules for the protected denomination of origin (D.O.P.) Culatello require the meat to be worked while still warm from the slaughterhouse. For this reason the day of the Culatelo maker starts early: as soon as the pork legs arrive in the morning, they're skinned, deboned and trimmed. The trimming will give the meat for Culatello, the buttock plus part of the leg, the fiocchetto which will be cured in a similar way to Culatello, but aged for a shorter time, and a few trimmings which will end up in Salame Strolghino, a lean, delicate and delicious salame usually eaten young.
At this stage the Culatelli are salted with a mixture of rock salt, crushed pepper and eventually garlic and/or white wine, the salt is vigorously rubbed on the meat which then rests from one to six days in a refrigerated room room, as shown in the picture above.Once the salting stage is over the meat is placed into a pig's bladder and shaped in the characteristic pear form, and then tied tightly to avoid the formation of air pockets which would spoil the product.
At Al Vedel the Culatelli are then placed in another refrigerated room for two weeks before they're moved down to the cellar, a special room under which a subterranean river flows, producing the moist environment needed to properly age Culatello di Zibello. The cellar of Al Vedel is absolutely spectacular: rows after rows of culatelli (as you can see in the opening picture) some still ageing, some ready for sale with their characteristic label in evidence.
For a taste of Culatello you'll have to wait till the next entry... Al Vedel, the restaurant.