On the edge of the Po river sits Antica Corte Pallavicina, a relais in northern Italy.
The Po river bends and curves like a snake that separates the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. On the edge of the Po sits a stunning relais with an amazing history. Throw a stone over the river from the Emilia-Romagna side, and it will land in Lombardy. (Disclosure: I was hosted by Antica Corte Pallavicina. All opinions are my own)
But the Antica Corte Pallavicina relais was not always the quietly elegant destination it is today, with a restaurant and a Michelin star chef. Enter the long drive off a unassuming road and you’ll be surrounded by fields of contented cows and a tiny old church. Walk through a verdant garden with roses and herbs until you enter the courtyard. The love of pigs is evident, and there are tributes to the noble pig everywhere you look. Tucked up against the courtyard wall are bikes available for guests. Entering Antica Corte Pallavicina relais, seems more like you’re entering your very wealthy friend’s country estate for a weekend visit. Stone floors, beautifully weathered wood, and original details are everywhere.
A sleeping dog suns itself in the office off the reception area.Although, it’s not really a reception area in the traditional sense. You’re really entering a home. The reception area was originally the kitchen.
I had first heard about Antica Corte Pallavicina from my friend Christina who had gushed about the most amazing prosciutto she’d ever had. Not really prosciutto, but culatello, which is like the caviar of prosciutto. When we planned on coming back to Italy, Christina contacted, Giovanni Lucchi the manager, who graciously agreed to host us. Best yet, we’d be able to dine in the restaurant where Chef Massimo, a Michelin star chef, works his magic. Having never dined at a restaurant with a Michelin star chef, I was over the moon with excitement. But that’s another story.
Christina and I were on our way to Torino to speak at a Slow Food event. If you’re not familiar with “slow food”, you can read more about it here. I re-read Carlo Petrini’s book just before my trip. When I learned about Antica Corte Pallavicina’s history, and learned about the culatello they produce, I was able to witness slow food in motion.
A Relais in northern Italy
What is a relais? A relais is a distinct property with unique characteristics. A castle, or chateau, or an estate could qualify as a relais. But not every property has the “Five C” motto, Character, Courtesy, Calm, Charm and Cuisine. (thank you Wikipedia!) Antica Corte Pallavicina covers all the “Cs” and more.
But the story behind ACP is even more remarkable. When the current owners, Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli, acquired the property in 1990, it had been neglected, and was in disrepair. They knew they needed to restore the property to its original glory. Their great-grandfather had once been a sharecropper, then tenant on this magnificent estate. How lovely that they were able to bring it full circle and honor their great-grandfather. Walk down a long corridor and you’ll find a dining room with elaborate ceilings and a massive fireplace.
The next room is a quiet lounge with a full bar tucked into a antique cabinet.
The sun-drenched lounge is perfect for a pre-dinner cocktail or late night brandy.
At the very end of the hallway is a staircase. Go up to your room or down the stairs to the cool basement where the culatello cures.
It was the kind of simple atmosphere that not every inn gets right.
The Black Parma Pig and Culatello
But on to one of the reasons that most people visit Antica Corte Pallavicina. Culatello. This is not any prosciutto, it’s the prosciutto of kings. Literally. Prince Charles sends his prized pigs all the way from farm at Highgrove in England to be cured into this most delicious of all pig products, culatello. The process is not new to the Spigaroli family. It was their grandfather who was a butcher, and had worked on Verdi’s land before coming to ACP. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Black Pig of Parma. Once nearly extinct, in the 1960s, the breed has been making a steady comeback due to the commitment of Chef Massiomo and the Spigaroli family. Today the Black Parmesan is in the Registery of Swine. If you’re a vegetarian, I’m sure I’ve lost you by now. But the respect the Spigaoli family, and indeed all producers of “Slow Food” have for the food they raise, butcher, and cure is remarkable. In America, we’re so caught up in producing food quickly and cheaply, we often don’t think about the process.
Location is part of the curing process.
Just as sourdough bread will never taste quite the same as it does when you’re in San Francisco. The culatello di Zibello relies on it’s location next to the Po river, the “nebbia” or fog that keeps the cellar temperature consistent, and even the bacteria or spores in the air. The culatelli is so prized here, that families tag their culatello and are willing to wait 12, 24 or even longer for their finished meat.
But it’s not just the area, it’s the butchering and curing, that’s crucial to it’s Slowness. One must respect the hog that gave its life for the delicious sausages and hams we enjoy.
Carlo Petrini writes that a “cook who did not respect the meat he was butchering was fired.” The Black Parma pigs are raised in open pastures and are grass fed. They roam freely. When the time comes, they are processed humanely. A visit to the museum that’s attached to the Hosteria del Maiale on the grounds gives the background of the Black Pig and the history of culatello and the property. The following morning we headed down to breakfast in the courtyard. The chefs were busy cooking custom frittatate and replenishing the ample breakfast bar.
As always we started with cappuccinos. I opted for a frittata, meats and cheese. After breakfast we took a walk around the property along the riverbank. The short hike is home to all sorts of wildlife, and trees as well as “Pig Park”. Lunch was of course, another trip to Hosteria del Maiale for more of the delicious culatello.
Christina and I knew we’d never get culatello once we left Italy. Our strict, and sometimes silly FDA regulations, mean that we are not able to enjoy many traditionally made products. If you want to read about Christina’s experience last summer you can find her post here.
If you’re a Slow Food enthusiast or even just a foodie in search of a truly one of a kind experience, Antica Corte Pallavicina fits the bill. It’s just a 45 minute drive from Parma and about an hour and a half south of Milan. To make reservations or to learn more about Antica Corte Pallavicina you can find their website here or their Instagram here.
I’ll be sharing more about our incredible meal prepared by chef Massimo soon, so stay tuned! You can read about Christina’s take on the relais and see her photos here.