Few maps of Italy show the village of Zibello in the province of Parma. Its a small town with only 800 families living there. But to those who know salumi (the Italian term for all cured meats) Zibello is a mecca.
The Province of Parma makes some of the best ham in the world, Prosciutto di Parma. But in Parma’s region around Zibello they use the hind leg of a specially selected porker that would normally become a prosciutto and remove the largest, most tender muscle. This they salt and massage while the weather is cold, pack it into a natural pork casing, tie it into a pear shape with a stout cord and hang it in a dark cellar exposed to the legendary cold, wet fog that comes off the Po River. There it ages and dries for 11 to 22 months. Before its use, the meat is wrapped in linen and soaked in white wine for several days. To serve it, the meat is sliced so thin you can see through it. The people of Zibello have been doing this for over 500 years.
The meat’s flavor is slightly salty, yet sweet, and it exudes a rich, porky aroma usually described as its “perfume”. It is the most prized and most expensive of Italy’s cured meats.
This jewel of the world of charcuterie is called Culatello di Zibello , and it cannot be imported to the United States. To try the real deal, you must travel to Italy.
And travel to Zibello we did.
Zibello is a farming community situated among the flat, green fields of the Po Valley that stretch from horizon to horizon. We had booked rooms there and a table for dinner at Trattoria e Locanda la Buca , a small inn that has served travelers home cooked food and its own culatello for five generations. La Buca is run by Miriam Leonardi and her daughter Laura Lanfredi, who prepare all the meals in the ways passed down to them from Miriam’s great-grandmother who established the inn in the late 1800’s. Their dedication to quality and tradition has brought fame to this modest establishment. (See the “Press” section on their web site.)
When we arrived, we were greeted by Miriam personally. She is a smiling, kindly, ample woman who evokes everyone’s grandmother.
Miriam had her helper Mina show us to our rooms and told us we could show up for dinner any time we wished.
La Buca has three guest bedrooms, and we were prepared for the humble lodgings, like your first apartment in college. We were more than happy to find ourselves in an old farm building that had been renovated by architect design and beautifully restored with an elevator, designer light fixtures, comfortable beds, exposed beams, new bathrooms, sattelite TV and other creature comforts.
We ambled over to the dining rooms about 8 PM. Mina was our waitress, but Miriam seemed to be everywhere and visited us between each course to discuss what we would like. Little matter that she spoke no English and we no Italian. She sent plate after plate, served family style, and all was good.
We started with Culatello di Zibello, of course, also a sampling of local salami and Spalla cotta (cooked and cured pork shoulder). For the Primi course we shared plates of Tortelli di ricotta, tortelli di zucca (large pasta filled with a pumpkin and almond paste), Anolini pasticciati “La Buca” (small pasta filled with meat and cheese in ragu) and Tagliatelle (ribbon pasta) with culatello and parmeggiano. Secondi course was Chicken Cacciatore, Roast veal breast, and Mariola (boiled pork sausage) served with an apple, pear and horseradish relish called mostarde. We spent 4 hours over dinner, enjoying each other’s company and chatting with our neighbors.
An even bigger treat for us was to be invited into Miriam’s private cave after dinner. Huge wine casks filled one end of the room, installed by her great grandmother. The walls and ceilings were hung with aging culatello and salami. Wheels of parmeggiano served as makeshift tables.
Miriam pulled out a tool made from a shaved horse bone. It is used to pierce the meat and test by smell the progress of the aging. She tested a salami and several culatello with us. She took the time to show me the difference in the aroma of a good culatello compared to a great culatello.
In the morning we enjoyed breakfast while Miriam and her husband Guido conducted business and filled mail orders for culatello. After loading the car, as we drove off, I took one last look back at the restaurant to find Miriam in the front window waving farewell. A charming and generous woman.
Our destination today…Carnevale Parade in Busetto.