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.
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).