Destinations, Emilia Romagna Tourism Board, Featured Partners, Food, Food in Italy, Italy

Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part I

May 22, 2012

Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese and Culatello Ham: Parma Territory & the Spigaroli Brothers

Italy is synonymous with good food.

Boiled down to cliche, it’s that reputation that keeps places like Olive Garden turning tables night after night. But taste a true bite of Italy’s gastronomic history and culture, and you’ll find a richness unrivaled by mass-production meal-makers anywhere in the world.

As we’ve been exploring Emilia-Romgana, Italy, Ted and I have had the great pleasure of meeting producers of fine Italian fare, sampling their artisan products, and learning the stories behind generations’ dedication to land and culinary tradition. (And posing for pictures with a full size statue of the beloved animal responsible for famed Italian pork products.)

This region is every food lover’s dream world: a parallel universe for Portlandia locavores, an inspiration for real food champions in home kitchens, food swaps, farmers markets, and restaurants, and a land of high culinary standards, exemplary for civilizations the world over.

Imagine a table spread with aged cheeses and ham, traditional balsamic vinegars, and wines fit for royalty, and we’ll introduce you to the producers we’ve met and the stories we’ve learned as we’ve sampled along the way…

Six years ago I graduated both from university and from tall green cylinders of sprinkle-it-on Parmesan cheese. Ted and I got married, we finally had a kitchen and time to cook, and I insecurely went of in search of my recipe’s called-for “Parmigiano-Reggiano” cheese.

What’s with the name? Can’t they just call it Parmesan? Who is this Reggie fellow? I don’t know how to pronounce “Reggiano” without sounding like a culinary neophyte. Sigh…I’m just calling it Parmesan cheese.

Many cheese wedges later (thank you Trader Joe’s for making it infinitely easy to sample yummy goodness of all varieties), and a stint or two making homemade cheddar and ricotta from amazing raw milk from our cousin’s creamery, I feel more comfortable pronouncing snooty names and casually serving them up to friends. (Hint: the trick is having wonderfully down to earth friends…we’re all free to share the flavors, mispronounce words, and still think highly of each other at the end of the meal. Snobs ruin the fun of good food!)

Ted and I still had much to learn about the origins of classic Parmesan, though. Present day, spring 2012, we’re traveling to Italy to learn about the origins of amazing Italian cuisine, and the light bulb finally goes off. For starters: the name. Parmigiano-Reggiano = cheese born from the land shared between the Parma and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy. Ding, ding, ding.

I guess it made sense when I read some tidbit at home, but now, standing in the rural landscape after walking the streets of the city of Parma, realizing what a small and special corner of the world developed and refined this craft, the name grew to hold a deeper meaning.

What is true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese? The ubiquitous Parmesan of shelf-stable cans in grocery aisles is only a faint echo of the original.

Like French Champagne, a true Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be called its proper name if it is from the literal territory and made strictly according to tradition. For the past nine centuries, cheese producers in this area have been crafting their product using solely raw cows milk, rennet, and whey.

Production in a nutshell:

Approximately 450 certified artisan dairies supply milk from four main breeds: La Reggiana, La Bianca Modenese, La Bruna Alpina, and La Frisona Italiana. Cows are given grass or hay diets, and are restricted from consuming any kind of silage (corn included), fermented food, animal origin feed, or by-products from the food industry.

Fresh raw milk is delivered within two hours of each twice-daily milking and combined with the previous day’s naturally skimmed milk (naturally = cream allowed to rise to the top).

The milk mixture is heated in copper lined vats, whey and calf rennet added, and once curds form, the mixture is strained in muslin and set in molds. The only additive during the process is the salt used during the 20 day brining period.

Then patience plays its role and the cheese is aged for an average of two years…

Six hundred liters of local raw milk go into each one of the 40 kilo wheels of cheese.

If you’re ever in the area, beside visiting restaurants and kitchen tables for tastes of the best, pay a visit to the Parmigiano-Reggiano Musuem (Via Volta, 5, Soragna, Parma), and if you’re curious for more history and insight into this age old cheese, visit the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium website. These are the folks responsible for checking each and every wheel of cheese at the 12 month aging point, ensuring that the quality is tops and the legacy preserved for future generations.

The prime culinary souvenir from our travels is a taste and a memory.

Now I can think to myself, Yes, Parmigiano-Reggiano, that beautiful cheese with a beautiful history…and a name that means something to me.

The experience of eating the fruity, nutty flavors, the taste bud moments that take no space in the backpacks, the knowledge that for the rest of life, when we eat true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, we’ll be transported by flavor to the very place: these are the delights of travel.

Just outside of the city of Parma in the Northwestern part of the Emilia-Romagna region, we visited an ancient castle where family secrets live on and amazing Culatello Hams are cured for the likes of Armani, Prince Charles, and the Prince of Monaco.

When we were living at home in Portland, I was keeping an eye on the Charcutepalooza phenomenon sweeping the DIY world. During 2011, food enthusiasts and home chefs were taking on the Punk Domestics home-curing projects announced on the 15th of each month. I knew we were leaving to travel and didn’t have the time to try my hand at curing pork, but it was a tempting thought…

What a treat it was, then, after a full day of sightseeing in and around Parma, visiting composer Giuseppe Verdi’s birthplace and home, seeing stunning opera halls and learning about the legend’s roots in the region, to arrive at the beautiful Spigoroli Estate on the Po River and learn about traditional cured meats of Northern Italy from the original masters.

We were invited to tour their family estate, Antica Corte Pallavacina, learn the history of their world famous Culatello production, and enjoy a fine meal afterward at Al Cavallino Bianco.

The estate is surrounded by stunningly green kitchen gardens. Free ranging ducks, chickens, and iconic peacocks popup in nearly every corner. The interior, now partially shared as a fine luxury hotel, seeps with history and charm.

Deep in the nearly 700 year old cellar, we walked through thousands and thousands of Culatello Hams and spotted the wall where the fine morsels designated for Armani, Prince Charles, and the Prince of Monaco are aging in the damp, darkness.

“How is it that such a delicious interesting flavour can come from a pig?” – Prince Charles commenting on the Spigaroli Culatello Ham

The underground room is regulated by one window facing toward the Po River.

Imagine the river’s damp fog creeping through the window.

The secret is in the art of time, moisture, and ancient molds swirling around each €200 piece of meat, aging them to delectable perfection.

Upon emerging from the cellar, we sampled their beautiful sparkling red wine, bites of Culatello ham, and regional Parmesan cheeses. A blissful appetizer before the night’s amazing feast.

But before the dinner, a history of the fine family responsible for starting this effort all those years ago, for providing these artisan aged meats to kings and composers. (Yes, Giuseppe Verdi was an original customer.)

In the early 1900s, the Spigaroli family were farmers who ran a ferry to take passengers across the Po River. They opened makeshift taverns on both banks to keep passengers fed with fried eel, carp, tench, “ambolina,” fine culatello ham, salami, and some of the first ice cream produced in the area.

Later, the Spigarolis cast a cement dance floor and country orchestras came to play in the summer evenings. News of the “Lido” (the taverns) reached nearby towns and cities, and soon visitors came from nearby Parma on the steam tram and from Fidenza by bicycle.

This Italian history brought a certain nostalgia for Oregon. I thought about the fun my brothers and I had taking the Wheatland Ferry with our parents between Marion and Yamhill Counties. My mind wandered to the stories of my great-grandparents’ dance hall above the Broadacres Tavern, a rural spot that brought weekend visitors down the Willamette from Portland to dance the night away in style along with local revelers.

Back in Italy in 1940, the war halted the merriment of normal life, and the two taverns were occupied by Germans. The Spigaroli brothers were serving in the war, the ferry was sunk, and all seemed lost. But upon their return, the “Lido” on the Parma bank was restored and begun again. Destroyed in the 1951 floods, it was rebuilt a second time with a kitchen.

In 1960, Marcello and Enrica and the boys’ aunt Emilia (an excellent cook) built a real trattoria with rooms to let. Painter and family friend Walter Madoi from Pieveottoville decorated the bar and restaurant with frescoes showing white horses prancing in poplar groves near the river, inspiring the restaurant’s name, Al Cavallino Bianco, “The White Horse.”

Three sons were born: Pierluigi, Massimo, and Luciano.

Massimo now runs kitchen and family farm, breeding and production: pigs, calve, sheep, poultry, honey, vegetables, and fruit (all strictly biological) and personally takes care of production of typical cold meats of old Marchesato Pallavicino di Polesine and Zibello (Culatello ham, Pancetta bacon, Cotechino, Gole, and Strolghini). Their mother Enrica still manages production of infusions (Nocino walnut liqueur, Bargnolino blackthorn liqueur, Limoncino lemon liqueur, laurino, luigino, and rosolio) in strictly limited quantities. Luciano and his wife Antonietta manage the wine cellar. Benedetta, Luciano and Antonietta’s daughter, is newly a part of the staff and will carry on the Spigaroli family tradition.

Whew. What a story. What a legacy, too, and a commitment by a family to treasure the things most important to them and to share with their community and with visitors from around the world.

Near sunset, we departed Antica Corte Pallavacina to head for the family’s restaurant, Al Cavallion Bianco.

Spoiled again with unbelievable foods, we savored the night’s meal in the company of our fellow travel writers and imagined just how we might manage to bring the flavors home to share with friends in Oregon upon our return… (Might New Seasons be up for a special request?)

A plate complete with samples of Coppa, Lardo, Culatello, Crespanetto, and Strogino salami.

Homemade pasta with Culatello ham…

Fresh greens, cheeses, and mushrooms to accompany the rich red meat…

Out of this world flavor meets plate and palette.

A flourished finish to the meal: family-made Nocino walnut and Bargnolino blackthorn liqueur.

It’s hard to simply share photos and stories and imagine justly conveying the richness of flavor and the depth of respect I have for artisans such as these.

In a fast paced world of quick food, convenient packaging, automated air conditioning, and low patience for the wait, products like Culatello ham call out for a slow and purposed enjoyment and ultimately gratefulness.

Please, for the love of all that is good and true and tasty, for the love of family and tradition and beautiful legacies, for the love of me and my foodie nuttiness, please watch this Fine Dining Lovers video for an interview with Massimo and an overview of the Spigaroli family’s work. There’s no sense in writing more to reinvent the wheel when this beautiful film carries the spirit so well.

If you’re really in a hurry, at least skip to 6:20 and watch Massimo prepare a traditional Culatello ham with garlic, salt, pepper, and gorgeous, fizzy red wine.

Related Posts:
Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part II
(Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena)
Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part III
(Albana Wine at Celli Vini)
Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part IV
(Italian Origami: Handmade Pasta at Casa Artusi)

This post is part of a series from Emilia-Romagna: A region of Northern Italy ripe for exploration. Artisan Local Foods (tortellini, lasagne, pancetta, traditional balsamic vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to name a few!), Historical Cities (Modena, Ferrara, Bologna, Rimini, and more), and Beautiful Natural Areas (the Po River Delta, the Apennine Mountains, and the green, green farmland in between).


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  • Reply Andi of My Beautiful Adventures May 22, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Seriously!?! Cheese, peonies, peacocks, wine, pasta, sunset…take me there now & I’m NEVER leaving!!!

    • Reply twoOregonians May 23, 2012 at 3:50 am

      Exactly!! It’s like a land of fairytales… I’m already dreaming of a return someday : )

  • Reply paula May 22, 2012 at 5:16 am

    it’s hard to cfome home after a trip to Italy.
    It’s even harder to come home and not want to find all the succulent food you experienced.
    but it’s not impossible because in the STATES there are now really fabulous people doing really wonderful food products which give you the ‘perfection’ of italian culinary experience…

    the hard part is recreating the atmosphere, the antiquities and the …well, you’ve been there…you know
    hugs from the WEST Portico, transferred in vacation in MAINE, P

    • Reply twoOregonians May 23, 2012 at 3:55 am

      Paula, you’re so right about all of the above. It really is a treat to know that even when we return to Oregon we’ll have access to some amazingly similar foods (and even imported originals!) to try again and serve up to friends and family. Now, for the atmosphere… Maybe we need to start gathering old bricks and beautiful peacocks and poplar trees that send the white fluff sailing through springtime breezes… : )
      Enjoy Maine! I’ve always wanted to visit the “other Portland” : )

  • Reply Tony May 22, 2012 at 7:57 am

    That cellar full of cured ham is RIDICULOUS! Also, was there a forklift behind Ted? No way he could lift those cheese wheels on his own…

    There are two more parts in this series still to come? I can’t let Meg see this… she’ll lose her mind with all of these awesome food pics!

    • Reply twoOregonians May 23, 2012 at 3:57 am

      Shhh…Tony, you’re ruining the optical illusion ; )
      Okay, okay, the cheese wheels he’s holding are hollow. But…he’s still pretty buff and that cheese is dang good!

      Wait till you see pictures of the wooden acacia and cherry balsamic vinegar aging barrels. All this food in Italy is almost unreal.

  • Reply Cindy Buck May 22, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Once again, a beautifully written blog with rich photos. And the video is truly exquisite. Thank you for sharing it <3

    • Reply twoOregonians May 23, 2012 at 4:07 am

      Thank you! I’m so glad that you took time to watch the video. It’s such a beautiful piece, and it begins to do justice to such a gorgeous history and landscape. And Massimo is such a great character to watch on camera! : )

  • Reply Sandra_Kathleen May 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Just…..YUM. It was in Italy where I came to appreciate “good food”. It is probably my biggest regret I did not force my host family to teach me some of their recipes. And then again, it wasn’t until after I had returned home that I really realized what kind of good food I had been eating. Luckily, I remembered some of the names of the dishes and I was able recreate a small slice of the Italian goodness I had savored daily. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was my favorite. My host mom noticed I really liked that cheese and so she made sure to have some in the table every meal. That was another thing- every meal. We ate together every evening and took time to enjoy and appreciate the food. Your post makes me nostalgic yet thankful that I have been able to experience some of the same foods you have. One day I will go back to Italy and eat and appreciate like I never did before. Love this post! Baci!

    • Reply twoOregonians May 23, 2012 at 4:27 am

      I can’t remember where I read it, but someone else was sharing about how she was nearly laughed out of the kitchen for asking about her hostess’ pasta sauce recipe. The women of the family shook their heads, saying there was no recipe, and offered looks of pity that this poor American girl couldn’t figure out how to combine a few tomatoes and spices. These Italians are so rich in tradition and so many take it for granted! : )

      Sounds like you had an amazing experience, too. Such a treat to share meals around a family table like that… I hope we can carry the joy of Italian food back to our friends and family in the Northwest, and I hope you get to pay a return visit to Italy and her beautiful people and food sometime soon! xx

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica May 23, 2012 at 4:17 am

    You are really making me want to hop a flight to Italy. I am certain I would gain 5 pounds in just a few days around all this great food.

    • Reply twoOregonians May 23, 2012 at 4:35 am

      I have a lot of extra spots of chub that weren’t there at all after hiking for long days and eating from camp stoves in Patagonia, that’s for sure! But it’s so worth it. It’s probably just a good thing that we don’t live in this area permanently… ; )

  • Reply Raul (ilivetotravel in Twitter) May 23, 2012 at 5:54 am

    Guys, this writeup is a WORK FOR ART itself! The writing, the awesome photography – one of the best I have ever seen.

    • Reply twoOregonians May 24, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      You’re too kind, Raul : ) Really happy to know you enjoyed the post. It gets to be time consuming to pull all of the pieces together while we’re on the road, but having stories and pictures to share with friends and keep for memories’ sake is so gratifying once I finally hit that “publish” button. Thanks so much for your kind words.

  • Reply Cherina May 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    LOVE the photo of you guys with the pig! :) A beautiful post and some really great pictures. And I thought the food and wine in Umbria was amazing! It was great to meet you guys in person in Italy – would’ve been nice to spend a bit more time with you. Look forward to catching up again sometime though!

    • Reply twoOregonians May 24, 2012 at 11:50 pm

      Cherina, thanks so much for stopping by for a read. So nice to cross paths with you in Umbria, and yes, hopefully we’ll get a chance for more conversations someday, somewhere : ) Glad you liked the pig photo-op – all credit to Michael Turtle for that one! ; )

  • Reply Judy Loucks May 24, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    That video is such an eye opener. From someone who plods along in little Molalla and forgets about the rest of the world and what they do during the day, I am in awe. Those hams (should I call them that?) looked like eggs hanging in some of kind of alien nest. What a story and what a wonderful man this Massimo is to keep this tradition alive. He makes you feel his memories. I would love to try the soup he remembers his mother making.

    • Reply twoOregonians May 24, 2012 at 11:54 pm

      I’m so glad you watched it, Judy! Isn’t the tradition amazing? I know what you mean – ham almost sounds too plain. But technically, yes, they’re Culatello Hams : ) There’s a cookbook I want to get when I return home: Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. It’s a wonderful collection of traditional Italian recipes from all around the country. Maybe there would be a similar soup? : )

  • Reply Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena May 25, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    […] Post navigation ← Previous […]

  • Reply Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part III - twoOregonians May 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    […] Posts: Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part I (Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese & Spigaroli Culatello Ham) Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy […]

  • Reply Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part IV - twoOregonians June 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    […] Posts: Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part I (Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese & Spigaroli Culatello Ham) Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy […]

  • Reply Private Cooking Class and Farmhouse Experience in Italy August 2, 2012 at 10:10 am

    […] Posts: Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part I (Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese & Spigaroli Culatello Ham) Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy […]

  • Reply Claire April 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Hi, I’m planning to visit this place because I’ve heard so much about its culatello. Did you sign up for a tour group? Thanks!

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