A day around Parma between ham, culatello and castles

Parma is a town in the north west of Italy, not far from Milan and the Cinque Terre. Parma is well connected via train links, motorway and recently even by air with the newly opened Verdi airport which connects the town with London Stansted. Thanking to this new possibility it is now possible to spend a long weekend to explore the best food in Italy, medieval castles and aristocratic palazzoes.

culatello in Parma

Culatello hanging from the humid cellars

The Castle of Torrechiara and Parma ham.

Heading  south just   30 minutes by car from central Parma, we will find the Castle of Torrechiara. An important manor overlooking the Parma river valley. Once belonging to the Rossi family is now a museum open to everyone interested in visiting this splendid example of medieval architecture.  The highlight of the visit is the magnificent “bedroom” once dedicated to Pier Maria Rossi’s lover: Bianca. But this is not all. The Torrechiara castle is only part of the fun. The castle’s adjacent town is the centre of the Parma ham production. In Langhirano you can sample the best prosciutto that you can find around, and directly from the producers too. The best of all comes when you can stay at the castle b&b and have your dinner right at Locanda del Castello a restuarant providing excellent and  typical Parma style dishes.

Farm stay with Parmesan production.

To make things more interesting you could stay a selected farm and wake up in the morning with an amazing breakfast followed with a tour of parmesan cheese production. This is possible in Lesignano Bagni not far from the Parma ham production area and it also close to a balsamic vinegar producer. In fact you can visit all 3 products in just one one day with a 2 night stay.

Colorno, little Paris, and culatello ham.

The Parma province has a lot to offer and maybe you need to start to make choices in your long weekend. The area once under the French control was named the little Paris, due to the charming resemblance of the river side of the two cities. But another important guest was living in the small town of Colorno. Marie Luise duchess of Parma and wife of Napolon. She made Colorno her home and she had a whole palazzo for herself. The ducal palace of Colorno is a splendid example of renaissance architecture. Not to be missed is the hourly tour inside the palace. Do not forget to walk in the English style palace garden that is always accessible during daylight.
But Colorno is home of another delicacy: Culatello ham. Probably it is the first location making the ham heading north from Parma. Remember that many producers are happy to do guided visits inside their cellars, so just follow the culatello road sign and ask.

Polesine Parmense and the Antica Corte Pallavicina.

Heading north from Parma towards the great Po’ river we will encounter an unpretentious village called  Polesine. The highlight here is the building named after the noble parmense family: the Pallavicini. While the village has been moved from the shores for the river, remarkably the Antica Corte still sits next to to the banks of Po’. The Antica Corte Pallavicina has been completely restored by Massimo Spigaroli, who is the keeper of the secrets of culatello. He will oblige to show you the massive brick cellars of the palace literally filled with the precious ham. Massimo also organises cooking lessons, and ham making sessions. Cycling and boat tours of the Po’ river. Of course you can also stay at the palace by renting one of the modern and comfortable room.

Roccabianca.

Roccabianca literally the white castles lies in the flat of the Parma province just few kilometres from the Po’ River. Pier Maria Rossi not satisfied with Torrechiara castle builds another palace for Bianca (his lover) here in the foggy and marshy lands north of Parma. Roccabianca is simply spectacular, the external walls of the inner courts are completely covered in ivy. Here it is easy to imagine tales of knights and dames. But Roccabianca is also the home of the Italian author Giovannino Guareschi, maybe known more familiar to the Italians than the foreign visitors. It is still worth to mention that you can visit his house and discover this stories of Don Camillo and Peppone. Of course Roccabianca is one of the homes of Culatello, so enjoy it while you are there.

Zibello.

The home of the famous culatello and also the headquarters of the consortium. In November there is the culatello festival called Novemberpork. The local fiesta is totally dedicated to swine delicacies. Their tagline is: speriamo che ci sia la nebbia, it translates as we hope that it is going to be foggy. For many might sound strange but the producers claim that they need to open the windows of their cellars to let the fog. Apparently you will need that sort of humidity to cure the ham correctly.

Soragna.

Needless to say that here in Soragna you will find 2 things: a castle and culatello ham. It is a tiny comune with a characteristic porticoed town centre. While you are here you should visit the Rocca di Soragna, another magnificent castle with the advantage of still being inhabited by its prince descending from the Lupi family. English guided visits can be organised and culatello producers are in range.

San Secondo Parmense.

San Secondo is the home of spalla di San Secondo. A pork speciality made with the front shoulders of the animal. The cooked version is served warm with torta fritta (a earthy fried bread) coupled together it is a mind blowing experience  The flat land around Parma do not produce great wines but if you come across the Fortana wine, or Fortanina you should not miss the chance to try it, light and fruity is heart-warming in those foggy nights.

 Cycling Activities from Parma – Discover the great river from Polesine Parmense.

The Po’ river offers plenty of opportunities for those wanting to cycle or walk. In fact it is possible to rent bicycles locally and go on cycling tour of the area. The activities require some sort of fitness but they are considered easy trails as they are in the flat. The day can be also combined with the navigation of the Po’ river and a stop in Cremona. Of course we will include a gourmet visit to a culatello producer.

Culatello ham tour from Parma

Culatello the king of cured meats - how to visit the producers in Italy.

 

Culatello is an Italian cold cut obtained form the best part of the pig: the back legs. The main differences between Parma ham and culatello are the followings: area of production, and the technique of curing the meats..

Culatello and its area of production – Parma province.

This ham is produced north of Parma on the flat lands of Pianura Padana. The huge flat lands that stretch from the Alps to the Apennini mountains in Italy, The PDO area of production is tiny making this product unique, highly sought after and luxurious, notably the towns of production are Busseto, Polesine Parmense, Zibello, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa and Colorno. Here the climate is much more humid and foggy than anywhere else in the area. Because of this characteristics it would be impossible to cure the ham on the bone as we would do for the Parma ham. Therefore with culatello the bone is removed to obtain 2 cuts, the main one culatello (literally the little ass) and the fiocchetto which is the inner muscle of the leg. The ingredients are just freshly slaughtered meat, salt and pepper.

How culatello is cured – the brick cellars.

Culatello requires humid brick cellars that are in the basement of buildings. The ham is then placed in a natural casing (pig bladder), tied and rubbed with salt and pepper only, also the meat need to reach the producer quickly from the moment of the slaughter  to keep the bacterial load low, which helps to cure the meat without the use of artificial preservatives. Culatello will spend at least 12 months in these traditional cellars before being inspected by  the experts of the consortium of Culatello di Zibello. The product is examined  with a wooden mallet checking for potential defects.

Parma ham VS Culatello of Zibello.

Is one better than the other? Well there will be a lot of debate if we say so. In short they are 2 different produces. Parma ham has a very sweet taste and it is cured with very little salt however it is produced on a larger scale with a larger output while still maintaining the consortium high quality. Culatello remains a niche gourmet product still made by a handful producers with methods that track back to their grand fathers or sometimes their grand grand fathers. Culatello is also more difficult to obtain and it is more labour intensive than Parma ham. Finally culatello has a more elegant, fragrant, structured and prolonged flavour than Parma ham. It is drier in texture and more savoury and the taste keeps flowing as you chew it.

The final product – how to prepare it.

When finally becomes the so acclaimed gourmet products (it can cost up to 70 euros a kg), the meats are bright red with nice marbling of fat, which enhance the delicate savoury taste. In order to eat the ham, you will need to prepare it. You will need to remove the strings used to tie it, and soak it in wine for a few hours. This will help to remove easily the bladder . Once this is done you will have to slice it very thinly. A slicing machine gives the best results.

How to eat Culatello di Zibello.

Culatello it is a great appetiser, and it would go with a glass of Fortana del Taro wine, or Malvasia and why not with a nice glass or Lambrusco. As part of your appetiser dish you can also add some shaving of Parmesan and few drops of balsamic vinegar of Modena or Reggio Emilia.

 How to visit a culatello producers in Parma.

Emilia Delizia can organise a culatello English guided tour, from Parma as part of our gourmet tours in Italy. We can pick you up from your hotel or meet you at a designated location. Our tours will always include a detailed visit and a generous final tasting. Don’t forget that this experience can be mixed with the Parmesan production, wine tours and balsamic vinegar production and cookery experiences.

 Culatello making classes – Culinary experiences in Parma

For those interested in a hands on approach, we organise culatello ham curing techniques. Our highly trained master curer will show you how the make the precious ham. The typical class will last one morning and the participants will learn how to prepare, cure, and tie the meat according the ancient Italian tradition. Your product will be aged in the cellars and it can be sent to you when it is ready.

Cualtello tasting visits with cycling along the Po’ River.

The Po’ river has a lot to offer, in terms of gastronomic adventures that can be combined with cycling tours departing from Parma with destination Cremona, of course with the use of river boats. The Po’ also has a network of cycling paths touching many producers of culatello.