04/24/2014 03:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Holy Rock Star of Italian Cured Ham Is Hosting "Pilgrims" at His Magical Retreat


If you love violins, Stradivarius is obviously your go-to guy. If you're a worshipper of frescoes, Giotto is probably your man. Unfortunately, neither man is with us any longer. But if you can find art in artisanal Italian cured pork -- that otherworldly Italian specialty known as salumi, borne of land, air, farm animals, tradition and soul -- the artist to revere in the flesh, unquestionably, is very-much-alive Massimo Spigaroli, the rock star hero of Italy's porcine-passionate throngs.

Every foodie steeped in the contemporary yummies of Italy knows about Spigaroli. The constant buzz. The YouTube videos. The canonization on Anthony Bourdain's program. The hundreds of articles about Spigaroli written all over the world. Not to mention the personal requests to Spigaroli from royalty everywhere for ham allocations.

But during my recent visit to Spigaroli's personal pig heaven, with its air of near-spirituality (the farm is actually in Emilia-Romagna, not far from the food-mad city of Parma)... I discovered something else that not every Spigaroli devotee knows: in addition to creating some of the world's finest ham at his apotheosis-of-ruralism farm, Spigaroli also runs a gorgeous six-room inn there, in a drop-dead 14th century castle he and his brother purchased 25 years ago. 


Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais, at twilight on a lovely spring evening

And... on every night except Monday... you can sample "verticals" of his most famous ham (18 months old, 27 months old, 37 months old, etc.) at the elegant Antica Corte Pallavicina restaurant, on the farm and within the castle. You can do more than that: you can work your way through a whole dinner based on the products of the farm, and the cooking traditions of the region. If the foodies of the world haven't noticed, Michelin certainly has -- awarding Spigaroli's restaurant (of which he is "chef-patron") a well-deserved twinkling star in 2011. They have retained it, of course... and everything about their style of pampering says they're wishing for more.


Spigaroli's one-star restaurant prepares to open for dinner

Let's start at the top. Though Spigaroli produces a number of different salumi types, he is most famous for his culatello -- which, though it's produced only in this small locality (Bassa Parmense), happens to be the most revered category of salumi in Italy.

Why? For one thing, it's a "filet" -- it is made from the heart of the pig's leg that's normally used for prosciutto; it is the most tender major muscle group of that leg. The rest of the leg gets used in other things -- often chopped into specialties that are less expensive than prosciutto. Therefore, it costs the producer a lot to extract the boneless culatello (or "little ass," in a literal translation) -- since he is losing the opportunity to use that whole leg for a prosciutto.

Once cut out of the leg, the culatello is lightly salted, stuffed in a pig's bladder, and tied with rope, forming a kind of net that keeps the meat in a pear-like shape.


Culatello aging

In Spigaroli's production chain, these culatellos begin life on a small farm that Spigaroli owns, not far from Zibello -- the town most famously associated with culatello, having a DOP from the government called "Culatello di Zibello." (A few neighboring towns, such as Spigaroli's town of Polesine, may share the DOP).


A properly tagged culatello at Spigaroli's farm

As you can tell through your nose upon approaching the farm, this is where the pigs are kept. But there's a special reserve pen within this population: About 10 percent of Spigaroli's pigs are "black pigs," famous for extra depth of flavor.


Black pigs at Spigaroli's farm

Whether the pigs are black or white, they all will be kept "in the wild" at some point during their lives. When the culatellos from these pigs finally come to market, the culatello will be designated as coming from either black pigs or white -- the former bringing a higher price, of course.

But first there's the initial aging shed on the farm, in the "cantina," which I like to call "a greenhouse of culatello." After slaughtering and butchering and preparation (always done between October and February), the new culatellos hang in a shed at the farm for 8 months -- with as little humidity as possible. There are windows in the shed but, during rain or humid weather, they are always kept shut.


Culatellos aging in a dry environment

The dryness helps the salt to push out moisture from the culatello; a dry cured ham is a ham free of bacteria.

After this 8-month period, the culatellos are moved to a second cantina, a few miles away -- none other than Spigaroli's beautiful castle! There, surrounded outside by a Noah-like population of other animals...


A peacock astride the castle roof

... the culatellos hang in Spigaroli's world-famous basement cantina... where the humidity is now encouraged for the already-dried culatellos. And the mists of the River Po cooperate, as they have since time immemorial.


Massimo Spigaroli with culatellos in his finishing cellar at the castle


Spigaroli near one of the oft-opened windows in the second cellar


Culatellos being aged for superstar chef Alain Ducasse, for Prince Albert of Monaco, and for Prince Charles of England

The aging regimen from here until the end varies. The official regulations call for 10 months of aging in the humid cellar, but Spigaroli goes way beyond that. The oldest one I saw had been aged for a full 42 months! Why is aging good? The flavors of the culatello concentrate with time, leading to a payload of sweet, earthy-cheesy goodness. And the texture takes on a resiliency that is unique in the world of cured ham. Of course, when you're tasting Spigaroli's culatello -- you also find a fineness, an elegance, a delicacy that is rare in the world of salumi.

When you dine at Antica Corte Pallavicina -- after taking your tour of the cellar, of course -- you have the world's greatest culatello at your disposal. Also at breakfast! Presented in multiple ways!


Three ages of culatello being offered at dinner at Spigaroli's restaurant


The culatello board at breakfast


The culatello is best when sliced extremely thinly

Make no mistake, the experience is total: farm, cellar, castle, restaurant, PLUS the world's greatest cured ham.

But totality aside... if one has to choose... what's the best part of visiting the Spigaroli compound?

Well, if you can arrange to arrive at twilight on a spring evening -- as I did -- you will likely be overwhelmed by the perfection of it all, at this ancient farm in the deep countryside. The air is like fine wine, heaving layers -- in this case earth, barnyard, and the violet-scented blooms of spring, sublimely intermingled. There's peaceful, eternal quiet in this air...punctuated now and then by the moo of a white cow, or the whinny of a brown horse, piercing the stillness like cries from a distant century.


Farm animals at twilight

The setting sun burns through the trees, just beyond the castle, requiring Bacchic gambols of all humans in the vicinity.


The sun sets at Antica Corte Pallavicina

And the steeple fades into darkness, as it has since the Renaissance, which is where you suddenly are, singing madrigals.

Basta. It is powerful enough.

But... frankly... the more you know about the current owner, Massimo Spigaroli... the better it gets.

The Spigaroli family, residents of the region for 1000 years, arrived at the castle in 1880 as laborers. Massimo's great-grandfather worked the fields in summer, but, in winter, labored as a "delivery butcher" -- meaning he would take orders from clients, help prepare the culatello, and deliver the meat to paying customers -- such as the Court, for whom the castle's owners were official butchers. As if this area weren't magic enough, it is also the gilded region of Italy's favorite son, composer Giuseppe Verdi, never forgotten in his music and in his region... and I'm sure Verdi never forgot the culatello he received at the front door from Massimo's great-grandfather.

The grandfather had his own role to play. Culatello deliveries, up to the 1920s, were sent across the River Po to some customers; the Po flows right behind the castle (yielding its culatello-beneficial mist), and so this made sense. But...customers sometimes had to wait at the Po for their deliveries! Grandpa to the rescue; he invented waiting stations on the Po where women cooked food for customers doing the culatello vigil.

Certainly by this time, the Spigaroli family was "famoso" for their great meats, and great service.

Not much... and everything... has changed nearly 100 years later. That's the beauty of it all.

Sure, Massimo and brother Luciano began an extensive restoration of the castle -- "where my grandfather worked!" Massimo says proudly -- in 1989, just after they purchased it. It took 20 years and, happily, made the place more 14th century than ever. Another change is that the "fame" has gone to "adoration," and it is felt not just by the Parmense, or just by the Italians... it is now felt by food-lovers, and luxury-lovers, around the world.

Miraculously, when you arrive at twilight, observe the farm from the multiple windows of your historic duplex, amble down the stone stairs by firelight for your experience in the restaurant... your reality and any fantasy you prefer are practically inseparable. What traveler could ask for more?

And one last note: You will pass through a medieval-feeling anteroom as you walk to the restaurant, a room with a spit on one side over a huge fire for roasting whole animals. But the remarkable detail is what sits at dead center in that room, supremely apart from anything else.


The machine for slicing culatello

I'm not even sure if this slicer is used; it wasn't when I was there. But how much more useful can something be than to function night and day as pure metaphor? "I am the slicing machine. Stand back. Without me, none of us would be here."

It spoke to me, quietly, in the gathering darkness.

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