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Friday, May 19, 2006

Jen's next Christmas gift

"Fat Is Beautiful" Armandino Batali makes
culatello at Salumi in Seattle.

Prince of Pork: In Seattle, Recreating the Perfect Ham

Published: May 17, 2006

THEY hang inconspicuously behind glass windows just inside the front door of Salumi, a pipsqueak of a place in the shabby Pioneer Square neighborhood of downtown Seattle. Hunks of ruddy-colored meat a little smaller than footballs, trussed with heavy twine, they are easy to miss amid the familiar prosciuttos, salamis and provolone cheeses.

But you miss them at your peril. They are princes among pork products, known in northern Italy as the superstars of the antipasto platter, and coveted by generations of big-time eaters in Emilia-Romagna, which harbors more of that species than any other Italian region. Sweeter, mellower and more delicate in flavor than prosciutto, with an astoundingly smooth and creamy texture, these über-hams, called culatelli, have achieved something approaching mythic status among the few Americans lucky enough to have tasted them on their native ground in the foggy Po River lowlands near Parma.

Until recently, that was just about the only place to taste the genuine article — either at the kitchen table of a hospitable farmhouse or at a traditional salumeria like the 400-year-old Giusti in Modena or at rural trattorias like the incomparable Da Ivan in Fontanelle and La Buca in Zibello, the epicenter of the culatello world.

Cut tissue-thin on a circular electric slicer, the meat looks "as subtle as rose-tinted parchment," Burton Anderson exclaims in "Treasures of the Italian Table" (William Morrow, 1994). It tastes even better. When made according to traditional precepts rather than by newfangled industrial methods, the locals say, it is caviar and the rest of the stuff is only fish eggs.

Now properly cured culatello has arrived at last in the United States, courtesy of a cheerful artisan named Armandino Batali, the proprietor of Salumi, where he makes, sells and serves it, plus other piggy treats like fennel-flavored salami and smoky soppressata.

Mr. Batali, 68, learned the pork-preserving craft in Italy after retiring from Boeing, where he worked as a chemical engineer. Among his best customers is his son Mario, the ebullient proprietor of Babbo, Lupa, Esca and other Manhattan caravansaries.

It takes a year or so to make a culatello, and that makes it expensive. At Salumi, which consists of a long service counter and a few chairs and tables, with old black-and-white family photos on the walls and an ultramodern processing plant out back, most of the salamis cost $15 a pound; culatello is $35 a pound, and worth every cent.

With his longish silver hair tucked inside a black baseball cap, eyes dancing with good humor behind dark-rimmed glasses, Mr. Batali welcomed a group of us to his little domain one day recently with the jolly comment: "Fat is beautiful. Fat is our friend."


It certainly irrigated our late lunch perfectly. Nancy Leson, the well-informed restaurant critic of The Seattle Times; Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills in Westchester County, north of New York City; my wife, Betsey; and I worked our way happily through plates of spicy boar sausage, coppa (a rough-cut sausage made from the collar of the pig), lamb prosciutto (not my favorite), cotechino sausage with exceptional Washington state lentils and an ambrosial family-style white bean and escarole soup.


The first step in making a culatello is boning and removing most of the thigh from the leg of fresh ham, leaving the rounded buttock ("culo" is Italian slang for a rear end). Cured for several weeks in a mixture of salt, sugar and small amounts of sodium nitrate (also called saltpeter), a preservative, and massaged several times, the meat is spiced with black pepper, tightly encased in a pig's bladder to help maintain its succulence ("creaminess is godliness," or so Mr. Batali says), tied into its characteristic shape and hung up for long, slow aging.

This lasts from 8 to 14 months, with the flavor gaining in complexity all the while. Mr. Batali gauges the hams' progress in the time-honored manner, sticking a gugia, a long probe made from horse bone, into each one, withdrawing it and sniffing. The more mature the ham, the more pronounced the delectable aroma that clings to the probe.

At Babbo, Mario Batali sometimes serves culatello with pears and shavings of parmesan, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, a delicious combination. But for me, culatello is a blossom that requires no gilding. So when Armandino Batali mailed one to my home we served it in its most pristine form.

posted by Steve @ 12:05:00 AM

12:05:00 AM

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