It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a bicycle successfully, and I didn’t expect my next wobbling, bottom-aching ride would be on a pig farm in Italy.
We pulled into the gravel driveway of Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais 45 minutes late, feeling frustrated after driving up and down the main road in Polesine Parmense looking for the turn off.
Our guide, Giovanni, was straddling his bicycle waiting for us: curly haired with a moustache and wearing a crisp shirt and trousers that a tourist wouldn’t imagine wearing in the heat of Italy’s summer.
Giovanni is the director of Antica Corte Pallavincia – a castle on a pig farm with a Michelin star restaurant and a cellar packed with drying pig meat.
Massimo Spigaroli’s a chef who you might have seen on MasterChef, or at Melbourne’s Food and Wine Festival.
In the heat of the late morning, I struggled onto my bicycle (artisan made for use by visitors to the farm) and we began our tour.
The farm is spread out around the town, and the first stop we made was its parmigiano reggiano factory. The workers were cleaning up after making the morning’s batch, and they had fun teasing Giovanni and “accidentally” getting him wet with the high-pressure hose. The cheese is made from milk sourced from farmers around the region, and is exported around the world under the Spigaroli name.
Next, we visited the ducks, geese, and turkeys, whose enclosure was in the shade of the vineyard. The poultry are grown for use in the restaurant. An older man was feeding them greens from the vegetable garden and the birds were pushing and pecking with excitement as they fought for a leaf.
When we reached the piggery – a long concrete building – Giovanni pointed me towards the dark entrance and said he needed to go and do something in another building, leaving me to it.
The stench was incredible. The black pigs were lying in shit and they flicked their tails at the flies. The pigs spooked when they heard me, and slipped on their hooves as they ran to their tiny outside concrete run to urinate.
Pigs grown for charcuterie are large when they are killed – three of four times the size of ours at Mount Gnomon. They’re also a lot older, around two years compared with six months.
Next to the piggery, Giovanni had unlocked the doors to the culatello drying room that was made of stone and covered in vines to help keep it cool. It was dark inside, except for a thin green light filtering through the vertical windows on the north side.
Everywhere there was meat: back legs with no bones or skin, squished into bladders and laced with string. Giovanni told me the culatello spends the first eight to ten months of its drying period here, where the environment is breezy and not too humid.
Back on the bicycle, I watched Giovanni pedal slowly as we talked and I realised my wobbling was being caused by my erratic stop-start pedaling. On the main road we pick up speed and I just hoped the locals in their constant road rage were used to navigating around sore-bottomed tourists.
In the castle cellar, 1.5m below the ground, it was cool and the low-set lights illuminated the culatello like religious figurines. Giovanni was getting hungry, so we talked briefly about the opening and closing of the small windows, and of the fog that drifts in from the nearby river, tenderising the meat.
Still in the depths, we sat in front of a stone wall where a projecting screen unraveled. We watched a very nicely crafted film telling us about the Spigaroli family history, the black pigs that forage in the wilderness, and the artisan production of culatello.
We were hungry now too, and we took the steps up to the restaurant where the white tablecloths awaited our crumbs and greasy fingers.
Lunch was fabulous of course, with attentive service, handcrafted crockery and cutlery, and delicious food. I had pasta filled and topped with parmigiano reggiano and a cream sauce; 150-day aged pork loin seared on the outside, but pleasantly raw in the middle, served with vegetables; and small sweet treats gifted from the kitchen.
Massimo’s a chef, and you can see that it’s the restaurant that makes Antica Corte Pallavicina special. But I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the pigs. Perhaps the pigs were about to be cleaned out, and perhaps in the heat it was better for them to be in the shade than in the flat, baking paddocks outside.
But on the sleek website that drew me to the business, the pigs appeared outside grazing, eating the nuts and plants that make their meat unique. Yes, they do go outside – but only for a couple of months in the autumn.
It is very hard to run all parts of a business perfectly – we know that full well, as we juggle the animals, butchery, farmers’ markets, restaurants, festivals and endless paperwork – but perhaps I naively thought there were people on the other side of the world that could.
Mount Gnomon's photostream on Flickr.