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Culatello & Picula de Caval


Culatello & Picula de Caval: Thoughts about one of Parma's great delicacies, and a tasty Emilian horsemeat stew.


  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) ground horsemeat
  • 2 onions, minced
  • 2 1/2 ounces (60 g) ground cured lard or pancetta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 glass dry white wine
  • 6 ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded, chopped and drained
  • 2 bell peppers, ribbed and seeded, then diced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (basil, sage and rosemary in proportions to taste)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt & freshly ground pepper


Got a letter from Bruce, who writes:

On a day trip to Parma, a town we loved, we ate at a charming restaurant: Il Trovatore.

We ordered the tasting special. It began with an assortment of salami and prosciutto, which was the best we had in Italy. We later learned there are different cuts of prosciutto and this was the cuore, the heart, I guess that's like the tenderloin. An amazing potato pasta ravioli dish. Then a secondo that was one of the best things we had during 2 weeks of one great meal after an other. It was kind of a vegetable stew with ground meat. I think it was called "La Vecchia" - but the menu also said this item was something about "cavallo". Is it possible it was horse meat? Or was it something about in the style eaten by horsemen. Either way it was great meal. And I never saw carne di cavallo in any of the butcher shops.

First of all, the white pages website says that the Ristorante Trovatore is in V. Affò Ireneo 2, 43100 Parma; Tel. 0521 236905.

Next, prosciutto is a salt-cured ham, and as a rule is the whole ham, which can be either boned or not. What Bruce was served was more likely culatello, a delicacy Burton Anderson discusses in a chapter of his "Treasures of the Italian Table." According to Orlando Manetti, who wrote an interesting book about pork processing entitled "La Scienza del Maiale," it's actually the happy outcome of a mistake: a young man who was new to making prosciutto ruined one, and in attempting to salvage something (a whole ham is a lot to waste) cut out the major muscle, which Anderson terms filet, and processed it as if it were a prosciutto. The result was extraordinarily delicate, and people began to make it intentionally, cutting the filet free, salting it, trussing it up in a sheath to give it a pear-shape, and hanging it up to age for 8-12 months in farm buildings in the lowlands around Parma, where the winter fog and the molds on the walls impart tantalizing flavors.

Culatello is expensive, because the rest of the ham from which it comes cannot be cured, and also appeared doomed to extinction because the EEU health people had decided that the damp, moldy farm buildings filled with mist where the culatelli age are unsanitary. The attempts to make culatelli in the sterile environments demanded by the EEU proved unsatisfactory, and true culatello production went underground, with people making it furtively and dolling it out to a lucky few -- I've found it once or twice in spectacular delicatessens. Assuming Emilia Romagna has put it on the list of traditionally prepared foods to be exempted from the EEU health controls, we can hope it will reemerge. At which point we'll be able to enjoy it in Italy (the exempted foods cannot be exported), but at a price: in Emilia Romagna, two culatelli cost as much as the rest of the hog put together.

With regards to cavallo, yes it was horse. The animals are raised specifically for human consumption, much like cattle, and the meat is sold by butchers who specialize in horse meat. It is, incidentally, extremely rich in iron; Italian doctors often prescribe it for their anemic patients.

Never had horse? If you live in California you'll have to go elsewhere, as I discovered when searching the web on the subject -- they've passed a law forbidding the sale of horsemeat for human consumption. Assuming you are elsewhere, here's Picula ad Caval, which sounds much like what Bruce enjoyed. The recipe is piacentina -- from Piacenza, which isn't far from Parma. You'll need the ingredients listed above, and the recipe will serve 6.

Begin by heating the oil, lard and onion in a skillet; sauté until the onion has become golden (don't let it really brown), then add the horsemeat and brown it, stirring it about frequently. When it has browned, sprinkle in the glass of wine, reduce the heat to barely a simmer, cover, and cook for at least an hour. Mix in the chopped tomatoes and diced peppers and continue cooking a half hour longer.

10 minutes before you remove the dish from the fire, sprinkle the minced herbs over everything. Serve it hot. Some prefer to use broth rather than wine as the liquid, and I would suggest that this will work quite nicely with polenta.

Another suggestion for horsemeat would be pastissada de caval, a tasty stew made in Verona.

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