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Postcard - King of the Foggy Bottoms

In Search of Culatello

Tim Brewer (Tim in Piemonte)

The sun did not shine; it was too wet to work; so we sat in the house on that cold, cold wet day; and I said to Rina, "How I wish we had something to do!"

Apologies to Dr. Seuss.

Well it had been raining for three days and we were a bit stir crazy (although we had plenty to do), so we bundled into the macchina (car) and headed on the autostrada down the Po valley to the Bassa Parmense, the land of the foggy bottoms and the "King of Salume" Culatello, (aptly named by Burton Anderson, when you consider its made from the choicest part of the pig's bottom).

A little over one hour from Asti on the A21 autostrada we turned off just past Piacenza and headed along the SS588, La Strada del Culatello towards Zibello, arriving 20 minutes later. The Bassa is on the Po flood plain, but we noticed at least three dyke walls between the river and the towns along the road as well as an extensive system of drainage canals. Lots of signs for osterie and culatello, but no piggies, we assumed the precious darlings are kept indoors in winter.

Originally we hoped to visit a salumeria to see how the culatello is made and cured, and brought our copy of Slow Food's L'Italia dei Presidi, which lists about a dozen producers as well as the other cured meat products from the Bassa; Mariola and Spalla Cruda. However, thanks to a mudslide on our road to Asti and heavy traffic, we arrived just before mid-day and thought it was a bit late to be calling in on working farms just before lunch, so we parked in Zibello and wandered around the town. Not too much on a wet day in another Emilia country town, the Piazza Garibaldi had an old building housing the offices of the Culatello di Zibello association (closed that morning), La Boutique delle Carne, a fancy macellerie, and the Leon d'Oro restaurant, all looked a bit touristy to us. The parish church (Chiesa Parrocchiale dei Santi Gervaso e Protaso) was of interest as it looked like a little sister of our Collegiata San Secondo in Asti, but alas, it too was closed (the cat in the hat been there too?).

Chiesa Parrocchiale dei Santi Gervaso e Protaso

Slow Food's osterie choices, both in neighbouring Busetto, were also closed that day, but all three eateries in Zibello were open, so we chose the most famous, La Trattoria La Buca, open since 1897 and now on the fifth generation of family cuoce (cooks). 

The Trattoria is an inviting structure like an old farmhouse, just outside of town, with good parking and nice outdoor patio for summer dining. We were the first in, but soon several tables were occupied and a small party took one of the private dining rooms. Given the proximity to Piacenza, Parma and Cremona, one could see that this would be a popular place in summer and a reservation would be a good idea. But not on a wet weekday in March!

Enough of the preliminaries, now to lunch!

Antipasto? In Zibello; Culatello of course! I am a vegetarian but this is something unique and actually doesn't even taste like meat. What to say but divine! Actually when I was a child growing up in Africa, one of my favourite treats was "biltong", sun dried venison; culatello is vaguely reminiscent but so much more refined. We were surprised to have butter served with the culatello, adding fat to fat so to speak, and after a long explanation from the waitress, we understood that eating butter with culatello adds a touch of sweetness.  Rina elected to have the Salumi misti, to try out some of the other local salume (I wouldn't touch these!). It was served with a pear mostarda, rather hot and spicy, but went well with the cold cuts and really complimented the warm spalla cotta.



The wine list was quiet extensive and more champagnes listed than we have seen since we left fancy restaurants behind and moved to Italy, apparently you must take a sparkling wine with culatello, so we had a modest half-bottle of local Blanc di Blancs, which did the job quite nicely.

For my primo I chose an unusual dish, Pasticcio di maccheroni in crosta dolce, which the waitress explained as macaroni with chicken ragout wrapped in a sweet pastry crust and would take 30 minutes to prepare - brava made from scratch and more time to enjoy the culatello.

It was quite interesting dish, a carb wrapped in a carb, food for Olympic champions but not really to our taste, and I regretted not taking the home made anolini or tortelli which the region is famous for, but if you don't try new things you never know - sì?

Rina skipped primo was daring enough to choose one of the house specials Trippa alla parmigiana (Tripe), thinking to try something unusual too. Rich with tomato sauce and lots of Parmagiano cheese which brought the dish to life.

For my second, I chose Anatra arrosti  (roasted duck), I mean it was perfect weather for ducks, although we didn't see any waddling around after we left ours at home. To be honest it was a bit tough and bony, compared with the more succulent Piedmontese Anatra Brasata, but still excellent. Contorni di stagione that day was roast potatoes, rather so-so.

For our main wine we chose a mix of Bonarda and Barbera from the Colli Piacenza, we wanted to try it as we produce both these varietals in Piedmont, and it was not disappointing and rather pleasant. We may try to make a little of this meritage ourselves.

The Trattoria apparently is famous for its dolci, and they brought a trolley loaded with many desserts. Rina went with the crostata and I stuck with some local Parmagiano Reggiano. The folks at the table behind us were raving about their Zuppa Inglese, but we don't trifle with this dish.

After we wrapped up, the highlight was a visit to their "cantina" where above the barrels of wine, hundreds of culatello and other salume were hanging. Luca explained that they cure their own culatello elsewhere - it needs special conditions hanging in a loft exposed to the local fogs as well as skilled workers (I norcini) and then brought to age in their cellar. Only the choicest filet of a ham is used, rolled in salt and wrapped in a membrane with the characteristic hand tied net. Burton Anderson has a chapter on the subject in his book "Pleasures of the Italian Table" and he states that the best should have green mould on the surface, not white! Each culatello weighs around 3 kg (compare with a prosciutto of 10 kg) and sells for €80 a kilo. It was quite a whiff and since we hadn't found a salumeria we bought one directly from them to have for our guest dinners at Villa Sampaguita, along with some spalla crudo and a local salami.

The meal with wine and all came to €105. I won't say what we paid for the salume! By the way, bring cash as they don't take credit cards.

In all an excellent way to spend a rainy day!

Tim Brewer, with his partner, Rina Vargas, has been living in Piedmont for ten years where they have a Bed & Breakfast - Villa Sampaguita - and a small winery. www.villasampaguita.com

© Tim Brewer, 2011

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