It’s not often you would find me deep in a damp ancient cellar, down and dirty among racks of hanging meat, but on this particular occasion it was well worth it, for this particular cellar was under the Palazzo Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais, the domain of Massimo Spigaroli, the undisputed King of Culatello, the Rolls Royce of prosciutto.
Antica Corte is a true labour of love; the result of twenty years of hard labour, transforming this abandoned castle on the banks of the mighty Po river, once owned by the Duchess of Parma and wife of Napoleon, into a luxury boutique hotel and Michelin star restaurant. But to understand the true magic that is Antica Corte, you have to look behind the majesty of the six stunning guest rooms, the spectacular restaurant, the sumptuous Po lined grounds and free grazing livestock to the real story of how the two Spigaroli brothers brought their family legacy back to life.
Like all great tales, there has to be a legendary figure at its centre and in this case it was Carlo the family’s great grandfather, who ran Giuseppe Verdi’s farm. Like most farmers in those days he made a living visiting local families killing their pigs to make salami, the staple food of the region. Each winter he slaughtered his own pigs, giving Verdi two of them but the great man wanted them ready cured so Carlo, using the process his family handed down over the centuries dutifully obliged. He left Verdi when he took the opportunity to live and farm his own land, but the musical maestro insisted he still supplied him his special cured pork. He called the cold cuts ” his favourite travelling companions”. and Carlo knew he was on to a winner.
The family farm prospered with pigs and other livestock, vegetables and fruit from the fertile Po enriched soil. With the mighty river on their doorstep they started a ferry service and sold their special cold cuts from kiosks on both banks. Word of their quality quickly spread and pretty soon people came from all over to snack on their “special salumi.”
With the passing of time, the Po changed its course, flooding the land and the Spigaroli dynasty now with brothers Massimo and Luciano eventually left the Antica farm for pastures new. However Massimo’s love for the kitchen, nurtured by his aunt Emilia’s culinary prowess was irresistible; watching her closely as she created dishes as chef in a local restaurant. After graduating from the Hotel School of Salsomaggiore and learning his craft in 5 star kitchens throughout Italy and abroad, his star burning ever brighter he returned to the Po region once more.
Now the story takes a twist. In1990 the very land where the family originally settled was for sale along with the now ruined Antica Corte. The two brothers realised this was a heaven sent opportunity to close the circle; recreate the organic free range farming principles of their great grandfather Carlo and, armed with his pork curing secrets, recreate those fabulous cold cuts Verdi loved so much.
It took twenty years to do it, but the dream is now a reality and the Antica Corte estate is once again alive with the sounds of grazing animals and the scents of fresh herbs and vegetables. The livestock are fed on home grown products and raised strictly as the traditional process demands. The fabled culatelli hanging in the cellar destined to grace the plates of diners in Massimo’s stunning 1 Michelin star restaurant or be shipped around the world to grateful customers including our own royal family.
After all at €160 per kilo this is meat with a centuries old legacy and love behind it. The six guest suites are all beyond magnificent, the restaurant a culinary journey of parmesan gastronomy and let’s not forget the daily tuition opportunities where you can learn Massimo’s secrets of salami and pasta making.
There’s another twist too because that very restaurant where Massimo’s aunt created the dishes that inspired him, Al Carvallino Bianco has also come under their ownership, just a stone’s throw from Antica.
An extraordinary family tale then. I think great grandfather Carlo would be as proud as punch to see his legacy reborn and somewhere, he’s wearing a very big smile indeed.
Rooms at Palazzo Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais are from £115 pn including breakfast. Restaurant summer tasting menu is €90 and with wine €125
All images (c) Andy Mossack