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A Halloween agri-food story from foggy farmlands of Italy

The story goes that back in the day of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, with the sale of one prized ham called ‘Culatello di Zibello’, a farmer could purchase another pig. Culatello di Zibello, is a cured cold cut from Emilia Romagna. It has been eaten for centuries and is still revered by Italians today. Yet it is another cold cut brand from the same region, Prosciutto di Parma that people more immediately recognise as the premium Italian pork export. So I left Belfast as part of a group of European Agricultural Journalists to find out more and what I uncovered was one of the best and most original food PR stories I had ever encountered...

Culatello di Zibello is made using from the choicest part of the upper thigh of a pig’s hind leg. It gets its name from the rather irreverent Italian word meaning ‘little ass’. But there is nothing base about its taste or price. Such is the niche appeal that a 36 month Culatello di Zibello can fetch up to 90 Euros per kilogramme with a whole one weighing only 3-4 kg.The cachet of Culatello di Zibello for discerning Italians, as well as a growing number of today’s top chefs and gourmands means they prepared to pay a super-premium price to have a reserved name tag placed on a custom-aged Culatello curing in the cellars of one particular farmer-producer, Massimo Spigaroli. I was able to see Spigaroli’s A-list of customers for myself when I visited his farm recently as part of a group of European Agricultural Journalists. Alongside Armani, Bulgari and Prince Albert of Monaco, Signor Spigaroli’s Estate Manager, Giovanni Lucchi confirmed that even Prince Charles has sent his own Large Black and Tamworth pig haunches to be cured in Spigaroli’s cellars having summoned the chef to Buckingham Palace to enquire how it was made.

In fact this product has all the ingredients of a PR food story par excellence. So what is so great about this product and its producer? Well apart from also being a Michelin Star chef, Massimo Spigaroli is one of a select few farmers situated in the humid lowlands surrounding the River Po who has secured protected EU PDO classification (Protected Designation of Origin) for their ‘Culatello di Zibello’. Spigaroli produces 4,000-5,000 Cullatelli di Zibello PDO per year with an additional 1,000 from his rare Black Pig breed. 20% is exported to Europe, primarily France, Germany and the UK and the lion share sold in Italy.

But seeing and more to the point smelling Massimo Spigaroli's cellars raises his ‘Culatello di Zibello’ to another level where he can rightfully stake a claim to the otherwise clichéd word ‘unique’ that pops up in PR stories from time to time. His dank and musty cellars don’t exude the aroma one might expect from edible food. Indeed, the estate manager confirmed they are not exporting to Australia or the US. Hundreds of dark, pear-shaped Culatello bundles hang like bats in nets in their Dracula-esque surroundings. The cellars are situated in the bowels of the Antica Corte Pallavincia, a small palace dating back to the 14th Century. Massimo and his brother purchased the castle from the Pallavincia family and then lovingly converted it into a top drawer, agri-tourism dine and stay experience without losing any of its medieval charm. The Spigaroli brothers are fourth generation farmers and cultivate the surrounding 500 acres of farmland to produce food and make wine for the restaurant tables. Massimo also utilises the land to raise pure-bred Large White, Italian Landrace and Duroc pig breeds for his Culatelli and salami.  Since 2012 he has been credited along with a small group of other local farmers with bringing back the Black Pig breed to the region and re-establishing a pure genetic line which he now, uniquely, uses for an uber-rare Culatello di Zibello retailing at 130 Euro per kilogramme.

The curing secrets of Spigaroli’s Culatello di Zibello literally reside in the walls of these ancient cellars. The molds that thrive there are the result of the humid microclimate and are crucial to Culatallo’s aging process. It is a process that starts at this time of year, the traditional time for killing and curing pork and when the Autumn mists and fogs descend. The Culatello is taken from the thigh of the pig which has been fed on barley and whey by-product from the local Parmesan producers. Only the most tender part is used. Sea salt, black pepper, garlic and Massimo’s own sparkling red wine are the only natural seasonings and flavourings used. After resting for about a week to dry out it is placed in a pig bladder and artfully tied in its signature pear shape. Then it hangs through a minimum of one harsh winter and into a steaming Italian summer before passing independent inspection for DOP labelling.
Having experienced the cellars, the degree of trepidation I had before eating the Culatello was more than compensated for by its wonderful balance of flavours and melt-in-the mouth, velvety texture and tenderness. We lunched on it al fresco. It was served wafer thin as the centre piece of a charcuterie board. Alongside it was some freshly baked bread, butter and a glass of sparkling, dry rose wine. The five syllabled Italian world for marvellous ‘meravigliosa’ suitably sums up the occasion.

With NI Year of Food just around the corner I look forward to seeing our own meat and artisan food product experiences ‘knocking the socks off’ visiting Italians just as much as I enjoyed my first but hopefully not last encounter with Culatello di Zibello.

A version of this article also appeared in a recent edition of Farmweek. Click on the link below to download.

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