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CanuckJim 05-19-2006 05:44 AM

Italian Flours
 
James,

A friend of mine, Sicilian background, knows a lot about sources for ingredients in Toronto's Italian sections. I asked him if he could find some culatello, but so far he's come up empty. Also asked about Caputo Tipo 00, mostly out of curiosity because I don't bake pizza often enough to go specific on the flour I use. Anyway, he couldn't find Caputo, but he did find Divella flour from Italy, both for pizza and bread. Does anyone out there know anything about this particular brand?

I'll give it a try for fun, but info would be appreciated.

Jim

Richard 05-19-2006 10:30 AM

Article/source for culatello part 1
 
A Prince of Pork: In Seattle, Recreating the Perfect Ham
Published: May 17, 2006
The New York Times
"Fat Is Beautiful" Armandino Batali makes culatello at Salumi in Seattle.

A Worthwhile Wait It takes a year to make culatello, which is sweeter than prosciutto.
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."

He led the way to his private hideaway, a small dining room furnished with nondescript chairs and a long table covered with oilcloth, sat down at one end and poured out tumblers full of chilled lambrusco — not the syrupy plonk popular with the Mateus crowd in the 1970's, but a bone-dry, biodynamic 2004 La Luna from Cantine Ceci in a handsome bottle whose cork was held down by a "muzzle" of string.

Garnet-colored, almost black, it foamed when it splashed into the glasses, then subsided, leaving behind a ring of pinkish froth. They swear by dry lambrusco in the trattorias of Emilia, where it is made, drinking it with almost everything. But it goes especially well with cured meats and cheese, its fruity acidity cutting through the fat, in the words of David Lynch, Babbo's wine director, "like a chainsaw through wood."

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.

But the purpose of the exercise, of course, was to taste the culatello, waiting prettily on a white platter, alongside another dish laden with puffy squares of crisply fried bread dough known as gnocchi fritti.

Mr. Batali is the least boastful of men, but he told me, "I believe my culatello is as good as anything in the Po." Compared with the Italian originals, his hams are a little smaller, more spherical and less pear-shaped, and rimmed with a significantly broader band of glacier-white fat.

He makes about 30 culatelli a month, he said, out of a total of 2,500 pounds of cured meat. Having begun with meat from Oregon, he now uses pork from white-hoofed Berkshire hogs raised by Doug Metzger, a third-generation farmer, on a 1,500-acre spread near Seneca, Kan. They are free to root and range as they like and are fed alfalfa and soybean meal with no hormones or additives. Naturally, the meat is free of the nasty water injections industrial outfits use.

Equally important for Mr. Batali, Mr. Metzger's pork has an unusual amount of intramuscular fat, or marbling, which enhances moistness in the finished product, and the hind legs of his hogs are among the largest available at 35 to 40 pounds, yielding fresh hams of 10 to 12 pounds and finished culatelli of as much as 9 pounds.

"You need to touch this stuff, feel it, to appreciate it," Mr. Batali said, fingering a hind leg of pork that had just arrived after a four-day journey by truck from the Midwest.

One of the secrets of the successful aging of artisanal culatello is the high humidity along the Po, in the marshy area known as the Bassa Parmense. Especially during the winter months, the tranquil towns and villages there, such as Zibello and Busseto, Giuseppe Verdi's hometown, are shrouded in fog so dense that the region's highways must sometimes be closed to traffic. Seattle's climate is also famously damp, which has helped him to create "a new tradition not so far from the old," Mr. Batali said.

Traditionally, Italian culatelli are aged in moldy cellars and grubby attics. But as Edward Behr noted in an essay on Emilia in his "Art of Eating" quarterly a few years ago, the national passion for "modernization" — production in factories instead of farms, uniformity, cleanliness — has swept the region, affecting not only hams but also other local gastronomic treasures, such as Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar.

"The Italian government and the European Union," as Mr. Behr reported with disappointment, "threaten ever more stringent standards, usually in the guise of improved sanitation, and even when the costs of the changes aren't prohibitive, the new methods tend to eliminate the precise qualities that make the traditional products superior."

Mr. Batali has had to contend with the authorities, too. To win United States Department of Agriculture certification, his processing plant needed to meet stringent standards, and there is nothing rustic or picturesque about it. As befits something designed by an engineer turned pork butcher, it combines craft with technology in several temperature-controlled rooms filled with gleaming stainless steel equipment. Scrupulously clean, the plant bears signs reading, "overshoes are required upon entering."

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.

Richard 05-19-2006 10:30 AM

Article/Source part 2
 
My friend Todd Gray, the chef and owner of Equinox, one of the capital's best restaurants, sliced it for me. Like prosciutto, it must be cut on a rotary slicing machine to get the requisite ultra-thin, almost translucent slices; a knife simply will not do. With the pale, rosy ham, we served only grissini, the Italian bread sticks, and the finest sweet organic butter I know, from the Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, California.

The guests assembled around the table of my stepdaughter and son-in-law, Catherine and Grant Collins, commented at once on the fabulous fragrance that floated from the ham, and they seemed as stunned by the taste as I was many years ago when I had my first bite at Cantarelli, the famous convenience-store-cum-osteria near Busseto.

"This has a much more refined flavor than any prosciutto or any other ham that I've ever tasted," said Bill Plante, a White House correspondent for CBS News.

"The thing about it," said his wife, Robin Smith, a documentary film producer, "is the way the sweet and the sour dance across your tongue. And the peppery aftertaste."

The ultimate accolade came, I suppose, from Bob Long, the Napa Valley wine maker, an Italian food enthusiast who was in town on a sales trip. "You would never think of wrapping this around a fig or draping it across a wedge of cantaloupe," he said

CanuckJim 05-20-2006 04:14 AM

Dance Across Your Tongue
 
Richard,

Thanks for posting the article. If I can't find culatello locally, I'll have to go the import route. Now, I ask you, what am I going to tell the customs guys when they ask, "Reason for importing." I don't think there's a check box for "taste buds."

Jim


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