Get a little ass--an ode to Culatello by guest blogger Brita

Did I hear that right?  Did that mustached man from Parma just profess his love for pear-shaped rumps?  Ah, before you get any wild ideas you should know that he was likely referring to the “king” of Parma’s prestigious cured meat traditions, Culatello di Zibello.  Culatello, which means “little butt” in Italian, is a pear-shaped, air-cured salume which is rarer and more precious than even the famous Prosciutto di Parma.  Salty, meaty, with just the right amont of fat that literally (and wonderfully) melts on your tongue, it's worth a trip to the villages of the Po Valley to taste the real thing.

 Culatello is often described as “the heart of prosciutto,” but there are actually less similarities between these two cured meats than one would imagine.  Although both cured meats are made from the hind legs of local Po River pigs, the size and breed of the pigs used for Culatello di Zibello are quite different than those used for Prosciutto di Parma . Whereas a pig used for Prosciutto di Parma will weigh approximately 150-160 kg when slaughtered, the pigs used for Culatello di Zibello (Mora Romagnola, Nera Parmigiana and Borghigiana) should weigh a whopping 250-300 kg.  Using such enormous pigs results in a thigh that is much larger and fattier than would otherwise be, which is necessary for preparing a traditional culatello.   

The legs used for culatello are larger and fattier, but since producers trim away the outer fat and only use a portion of the muscle, the end product is leaner than full-leg of proscuitto.  Adding to its unique form, the intricate stitches and knots made before curing create an elegant rosette pattern when the meat is sliced.  It should be no surprise that numerous Italian poets, artists and writers have celebrated this rose-colored salume since the early 14th century. 

Beyond differences in product, the production and marketing strategies of Culatello di Zibello (especially those produced by the Consorzio ) and Prosciutto di Parma could not be more different.  And while Prosciutto di Parma struggles to deal with issues such as oversupply and declining prices at odds with increasing raw material costs, the Consorzio focuses on steady growth by maintaining its high status and value by regulating supply, distribution and product quality.  


Just like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Proscuitto di Parma, Culatello di Zibello is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product, and was given such status in 1996.   Terroir is considered to be just as important as the strict production criteria designated by the PDO guidelines.  Whereas a product simply called “culatello” can be produced in any part of Italy and use a range of processing and preparing techniques, Culatello di Zibello must be processed and prepared according to specific guidelines, exclusively within eight villages in the foggy lowlands of the Po River Valley, approximately 30 minutes outside of Parma in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy.

Beyond the PDO designation, there was a group of Culatello di Zibello producers that wanted to establish even stricter regulations regarding the production of this revered salume.  These producers created Il Consorzio del Culatello di Zibello, which adheres to the PDO standards, but further dictates specific rules regarding curing and aging. Although it is quite esteemed, the PDO product is said to be outshined by the highly artisanal salume produced by the Consorzio del Culatello di Zibello

The production of Culatello di Zibello from the Consorzio is relatively low; largely because of the small number of Consorzio producers (currently 14), and the heavier limits surrounding the Consorzio’s artisanal production.  The Consorzio limits production to only the cold months (October to February) and the salume must be cured for a minimum of 12 months (PDO producers can make culatello year round, and have a curing minimum of 10 months). Further, the Consorzio prohibits the use of any refrigerators, dehumidifiers, radiators, etc. during the curing process.  This is an important distinction in that it requires the producers to use their years (often decades) of knowledge on a daily basis in deciding when and how much to open the windows of the curing house, depending on the weather and time of year.  (Further contrast this practice with "culatello" production in the US, where refrigeration ismandated and you can see why the products differ so drastically.)

And by the way, what does “Zibello” have to do with all of this?  Well, out of the eight village names, it was the catchiest!  With his cute, lively Italian accent Luciano Spigaroli said to me, “Culatello di Zibello, Culatello di Zibello, it just rolls off of your tongue!” 


Producing quality culatello is an art, as there are many variables which affect the final product. Luciano Spigarolo, co-producer (along with his brother Massimo) of Antica Corte Pallavicina was able to break the drivers of quality into three main categories.  "Above all, you must begin with a healthy, happy and large pig. You must have a  proper curing cellar which is able to effectively maintain both a cool and humid climate.  But what truly divides the average from the exceptional is the many layers and years of deep knowledge that are incorporated into making an artisanally-produced culatello."

L. Spigarolo continues, "Among many things, this includes the skilled hands of the head chef and other butchers who cut, massage, wrap, cure, season and sew; the secret recipe of salt and seasonings; the trial and error in using different elements to create the perfect environment of the cellar; and the decades of daily and seasonal insight regarding adjustment of windows, temperature and length of curing."  At Antica Corte Pallavicina their historic curing cellar, which is filled with musty rooms and timeworn walls, is credited as being a secret ingredient in the making of their culatello.  The damp cellar air carries not only the essence of past and present culatelli, but also includes the dense scent of ancient dust particles and crumbled grape must scattered on the ground.


Luciano and Massimo Spigaroli, the brothers behind one of the Consorzio’s producers, Antica Corte Pallavicina(Massimo is also the Consorzio’s current president), share a familial bond to the region as well as their culatello.  Their great grandfather was a sharecropper on a farm own by Giuseppe Verdi, but was fired when he offered Mr. Verdi a hare that he had killed while cutting the grass that day (“nobody had the right to kill the animals on his land!”).  So in looking for a new farm to sharecrop, he ended up in Polesine, right next to the Po river.  It was there that he learned the tradition of producing culatello, a tradition that has endured and flourished with each generation.  Yet, although this area’s history and traditions reflect hundreds of years of culatello production, it has only recently enjoyed the economic benefits and worldwide acclaim surrounding its culatello. Even as recently as 30 years ago this was a poor area which many of the locals abandoned rather than flocked to.  Reason enough, as the Spigaroli brothers see it to try a limited distribution strategy to help turn around the local economy.

The Spigaroli brothers are inspired by their grandfather's story  to use the Po Valley's unique agricultural products as anchors to make building a life in these villages a viable option for the region's young people.  In fact, the economic rejuvenation of the Po river area can be credited in part to the groundwork and enthusiasm of those like the Spigaroli brothers.

"We [the Consorzio] prefer to have smaller productions because we don’t want culatello to resemble an industrialized production or be widely distributed," L. Spigaroli explains.   "The Consorzio’s culatello should be enjoyed for special occasions, and should only be found in specialty shops and exclusive restaurants, mostly in our home region."  So, rather than shipping the product far and wide, the Consorzio wants to help bolster the economy of the eight producing villages and encourage people to enjoy the Consorzio’s culatello at the source. Obviously by regulating supply, the producers are also able to support prices, which is highly important for the continued progress of such small producers.

The producers of culatello in the  Po River Vally have worked very hard to lay the groundwork in order to bring Culatello di Zibello into the international gastronomic spotlight.  To date, the group has been successful in their goals.  While PDO Culatello di Zibello commands a high price, the Consorzio’s culatello drives an even higher premium, ranging from €50 to €55 per kilo.  Additionally, 80% of the Consorzio’s culatello is bought or served within the eight villages along the Po.  The villages are now flourishing, with many moving back to own homes and open shops.  It is impressive and encouraging to see a small producing community not only successfully create a world-famous niche, but also create a production system which supports the continued quality and price of the product, and supports the surrounding community through tourism, commerce and the creation of jobs. 


Enough already!  How can you get your hands on this artisanal treasure, you say?  If you are in the U.S., and a trip to Italy isn’t in your future, then I have to say you are probably out of luck (barring a brave friend who is willing to risk a run-in with a customs agent).  The traditional curing methods have not been (and it is unlikely they ever will be) approved by the U.S.D.A., and although there are American producers making new world culatello, it just isn’t the same. 

In Europe, and even Japan, you can find small quantities here and there, so if you are wandering those streets and hear someone professing their love for pear-shaped rumps…  you may have just hit the jack pot.


 -Brita Rosenheim, University of Gastronomic Sciences '07, Colorno, Italy. Currently working in Manhattan for a boutique food publicist.

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