Quest for Culatello

9 Oct
Culatelli di Zibello Source: Wikipedia Commons

Culatelli di Zibello
Source: Wikipedia Commons

I felt like a criminal when I smuggled the non-permitted item onto my flight from Bologna to Paris, and the next day from Paris back to Los Angeles. But I didn’t travel that far to be stripped of my prized Culatello di Zibello, considered by many salumi lovers to be the King of charcuterie. Better than its cousin prosciutto, culatello has an intense, complex salty, sweet and musty flavor with a supple texture.

Culatello, which literally means “little ass” is made from a single muscle from the hind leg of a pork. After the muscle is trimmed and the bone and skin are removed, it is massaged and salted. It is then encased in a cleaned pig bladder, and then typically hung from the ceiling of a 500 year old musty cave. This aging process can be from 16 to 18 months, or even as much of 30 months.

Culatello di Zibello is made in the Emilia-Romagna area of Italy near the foggy Po River area. The Emilia-Romagna area is best known for its prosciutto, Modena balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and the birthplace of tortellini (one legend is that they were inspired by Venus’ navel.) After a food- and music-centric week in Venice, I took the train to the Bologna region in search of food nirvana.

My first night in Bologna I dined at the historical Papagallo, of course ordering tortellini, as I always try to order the most “typical” food of the region I am visiting. Bologna is a vibrant, bustling college town, great for wandering under the porticos, and exploring the many historical and artistic sites. But my real quest was to try as much of the local fare that is thought to be amongst the best in Italy.

To that end, after a few days exploring Bologna, I decided to take the train to the nearby towns of Modena and Parma. (If taking the train from Bologna, make sure to be on the right platform.) The handsome ticket seller at the train station flirtatiously questioned my intention of seeing both towns in one day, but as it was my final full day in the area, I was determined to sample both. I typically just wander the streets and see what eateries invite me to dine, whether inexpensive local spots or upscale. In Modena, for lunch I found Hosteria Vecchia, which featured the typical cuisine of Modena. The restaurant was bustling with local businessmen, blue collar workers, and couples, all enjoying the fantastic fare.

Salumeria Garibaldi Source: Flickr

Salumeria Garibaldi
Source: Flickr

After buying my aceto balsamico tradizionale (Modena balsamic vinegar aged at least 12 years), I continued on my food quest to Parma, now in pursuit of culatello. Again, preferring to let serendipity take its course, I wandered around Parma’s old town centre. I found cafes, and shops but not any salumeria. Dissappointed, I headed back to the train at dusk when I saw the illuminated Salumeria Garibaldi welcoming me. I managed to put in my order just before they closed. I chose three types of salumi including the culatello.

Back at my room in the elegant Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni, I ordered some aged Parmesan, a dry Lambrusco wine and proceeded to savor my culinary finds. I couldn’t eat all of the culatello, but there was no way I was going to throw it away.  I decided to take it with me, so my son, who was meeting back up with me in Paris, could try it with me. To that end, I wrapped the pungent culatello in multiple layers of plastic so hopefully it would not be detected before boarding the plane in Bologna and again in Paris. Once safely en route from Paris to Los Angeles, we devoured the sublime culatello, apparently without detection.

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