Fat, rich, fertile, Emilia Romagna is a place of luxuriant fields, medieval palazzos, ancient churches—and hogs. Pig breeding and salumi-making have deep roots here: prehistoric findings reveal that pigs were reared in the Piacenza area from at least 1000 BC, and by the Renaissance writers praised the mortadelle, sausages and salami of the area.
Virtually anyone with an interest in Italian food has heard of Parma ham—thin, rosy slices dissolving delicate and sweet in the mouth—and mortadella di Bologna—the white-fleked meat caressing the palate with a soft and round flavour just sharpened by subtle hints of spices.
But Emilia Romagna produces several other excellent salumi which are little known outside the confines of Italy. From the simple spalla cotta and cruda— a more delicate prosciutto—to the unusually named cappello di prete (priest’s hat, so called because it is shaped like a priest’s tricorn) and zampone, the king of the Christmas table. They are all worth a try, especially if you can enjoy them at a trattoria in the production area, accompanied by a good glass of wine. But perhaps the three most flavoursome and interesting ones, which definitely warrant a tasting or three, are the Coppa Piacentina, the Culatello di Zibello and the Salame di Felino.
Salame di Felino
Italian speakers may be a bit puzzled when faced with salame di Felino. After all, Felino means feline in Italian—but don’t worry, no cat is involved. The Felino mentioned in the salami is a hill town at the foot of the Apennines, which is one of Emilia Romagna’s oldest charcuterie capitals. Pigs were reared here since the Bronze Age, some salumi from the area made their way into Roman culinary bible De Re Coquinaria in the first century AD, and the salame as we know it was first mentioned in an official document in 1436, when a mercenary leader, Niccolò Piccinino, asked for “twenty pigs to make salami.”
So ancient and illustrious is Felino’s tradition that the town has devoted an entire museum to its salame, housed in the ancient kitchens and pantries of the local medieval castle. Between mid-March and mid-December, visitors can walk through the history, culture and gastronomic use of the salame and end in glory with a full tasting (333 2362839 for information).
Felino’s salame became popular at the many courts that succeeded one another in Parma—those of the Farnese, the Bourbon, and the Duchess Marie Louise of Austria—but, for years, the small town’s salume was often mixed up with similar ones from neighbouring areas. Until the late 19th century, when buyers from Lombardy specifically identified and asked for salame from Felino. And with good reason, as it is one of Italy’s best. A fleeting touch of waxy fat hits the mouth first followed by a satisfyingly coarse but soft and moist texture. But the flavour that billows against the palate is hardly what you’d expect from meat that has been seasoned with salt and pepper, flavoured with garlic and dry white wine and cured for at least a month—it is delicate, gentle, sweet, a triumph of rosy perfection. Cut it diagonally in thin slices of not more than ½ cm, it cries for good country bread and a glass of Lambrusco.
Coppa is an act of fine balance. A farmhouse salume born in the cascine that stud the Padana plain, it has a marked but sweet flavour, with faint notes of spice. Its origins are lost in the mists of time—farmers from the countryside around Piacenza apparently made a very similar salume in Roman times. By the 15th century coppa became popular in neighbouring Lombardy, and from there, it reached the world. Beware though—not every coppa is piacentina. Other coppe are produced in Parma, Mantua and various corners of Italy, and while they are all good, the one from Piacenza, which is protected by a PDO (protected denomination of origin) is special. Cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, salt, pepper and nutmeg all lend their aromas to the meat, which is cured for at least six months. Brilliant red and pale pink, coppa piacentina is soft and moist like a sliced rose, and dances a sweet and salty waltz in the mouth, which lasts long after the last mouthful has been swallowed. It marries perfectly with country bread, fresh, creamy cheeses such as stracchino and a glass of Bonarda or Gutturnio.
Culatello di Zibello
If prosciutto di Parma is the king of salumi, culatello is the emperor. A tiny emperor, that is because pear-shaped culatello is made only with the choicest cuts from traditionally reared hogs, ensuring it never weighs more than 5 kilos. It has ancient origins—legend has it that it was served at the wedding of Andrea dei Conti Rossi and Giovanna dei Conti Sanvitale in 1332, and it is certainly recorded in history since 1732—and, over the centuries, has conquered the palates of sophisticated poets and artists, including Gabriele d’Annunzio, who cried in a letter: “Now, now, now! Three slices of culatello”, while agonising whether it should be spelled with one or two Ts. But because it was expensive, laborious to produce and only made in the village of Zibello and seven neighbouring comuni, this rare salume was chiefly sold locally, at least until the mid twentieth century.
Even now, it is little known outside Italy, which is a real shame, because it is pure cold cut pleasure. The meat is worked with salt, pepper and, in some cases, dry white wine and pressed garlic, from October to February, when the plains around Parma are wrapped in a thick cold fog. It is then cured in cellars for ten months, reaching shops and tables at the onset of winter, a year after the cuts were first worked. Winter fog, summer heat and an ancient, wholly hand-made production method conspire to give culatello its intense aroma and moist, delicate, sweet flavour. “The ingredients for a good culatello are just a few and simple: people’s know-how, meat of a good pig, salt and fog,” states the Consorzio del Culatello di Zibello, a body which upholds and checks culatello’s standards throughout the production area. The consortium recommends eating it with some good bread, butter and a glass of dry, lightly fizzy wine.