At almost $60 per pound, culatello can’t hold a candle to pata negra jamon, costwise, but it still seems expensive, right?
Last week we marveled at the $169.00 per pound Bellota variety of the jamon Iberico called pata negra. Stepping down to the next most expensive ham I know of (neglecting the several steps in between of Spanish ham available at DeSpana), we arrive at culatello. This northern Italian ham is made around Piacenza, in far northern Emiglia-Romagna, from the butt of the pig.
Traditionally, it’s aged in sheds with dirt floors, which apparently provide a kind of humidity control as the hams age. At one point the Italian government tried to outlaw these dirt floors for reasons of hygiene. Eventually, the government relented, but only after a public outcry.
Still, in Italy the traditionally made hams are rare, with the best being bought up by the trattorias of the area. I’ve had it in Rivergaro, Italy, served with the fritters called gnoccho, and the ham was amazing, hyper-rich and almost crumbly.
The culatello, lying idly in the cold case at Chelsea Market’s Buon Italia.
Culatello is one of the many pork products that the U.S.F.D.A. does not permit to be imported into the country, as a result of archaic attitudes about unrefrigerated meat products and unfounded fear of trichinosis. Accordingly, only domestic varieties are available here. The one at Buon Italia is made in Iowa among the corn fields by La Quercia, which produces credible facsimiles of Italian pork products.
Turn page to find out what culatello riserva tastes like.
La Quercia culatello, nicely veined with flavorful fat.
Italian culatello is made from the side of the butt that the pig’s tail curls on. (Supposedly, a pig won’t sit on its tail, making that side more tender.) Our domestic culatello riserva is aged 11 to 12 months.While we don’t know which side of the ass La Quercia uses, its culatello riserva is glove-soft and dense, with the color being a little richer and more red than imported prosciutto. The taste is funkier, too, and the fat more flavorful and nicely marbled.
Is it worth it to spend three times as much for this culatello as for prosicutto? Probably not, unless you want to impress your guests with its richness and visual beauty. This ham totally kicks ass.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 27, 2009