BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Angelo Capasso, founder and owner of SQUISITO (meaning DELICIOUS), an artisanal cured ham factory near Parma that produces one of the best Culatello di Zibello, the tastiest, rarest, and most expensive of all Italian hams, and one of the best foods ever to accompany champagne.
Since the 18th century, Culatello has been produced in the Emilia Romagna Region, where other great Italian foods are produced, like Parma ham and parmesan cheese.
Just like these top products — and like champagne — Culatello di Zibello possesses P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) status, the EU’s highest for geographical indications and traditional specialties.
Culatello, which literally means “little ass,” is made from the boneless fillet or loin of the hind leg. It is cured with only salt and aged in a beef or hogs bladder in cellars for a minimum of 9 months, although SQUISITO adds some pepper and ages its Culatello much longer.
In these humid, natural cellars close to the Po River, Culatello develops noble molds on its surface and acquires a velvety texture, a sweet taste, and it develops unique musky aromas that Angelo defines as hazelnut, chestnut, undergrowth, and coffee-like.
3 Michelin star Chef Massimo Bottura, owner of Osteria Francescana, the World’s Best Restaurant in 2018, says that Culatello “It isn’t just meat, it’s myth.”
Because of its top quality and taste, SQUISITO was awarded for the best Culatello di Zibello by Gambero Rosso magazine in 2013, and was chosen by DOM PÉRIGNON to accompany the launch of its 2004 vintage.
In this exclusive interview, Angelo shares the secrets of his work, his passion for Culatello and for champagne, and the best pairing of the two he ever tasted. Salute!
BEST CHAMPAGNE: You founded SQUISITO in 2010. Why? What were your ambitions?
ANGELO CAPASSO: After graduating from hotel school, in 1998 I started working for Spigaroli, one of the best producers of Culatello di Zibello DOP.
After a decade of exciting but rather monotonous work, I was tired of always doing the same things.
Then in May 2010 I quit my job and rented a ham curing facility, where in August of the same year I produced my first salami. Today we are a small team of 5 people united by the ambition of producing well-made, handcrafted products.
We produce a wide range of cold cuts, but Culatello was already in my ambitions from the beginning. In fact, we are fortunate to find ourselves in the area demarcated by the Culatello consortium and therefore it would be a pity not to produce it.
However, my overall ambition was to produce all the products that can be made with pork, since Culatello is as good as it is complicated and expensive to produce.
Culatello di Zibello D.O.P. can be marketed only after a minimum of 16 months of seasoning while the other cold cuts are ready and marketable much earlier. We, therefore, made ourselves known first for the quality and taste of our salamis, and later for our Culatello.
But all our products, from the youngest Strolghino (a tender salami prepared with leftover cuts of meat used for Culatello) to the more seasoned Culatello, express a style — that of SQUISITO — made of sweetness, and a taste of the cellar, especially in the more seasoned products.
Today we sell 85% of our products in Italy and only 15% abroad, mainly in France and Hong Kong, where they are highly appreciated. But our strategy is to make ourselves known and recognized further abroad.
We also develop new products, such as the Parma ham burger, without any preservatives. It is a very successful product to which we are adding a version with Parmigiano Reggiano aged 30 months.
We also have a small line of organic certified products and Culatelli, with further guarantees of quality for the consumer, but without any difference in flavor from the non-organic ones.
BC: Your were awarded the title best of the best Culatello in the consortium by the Gambero Rosso magazine in 2013. How do you build its quality and taste?
AC: The quality and flavor of Culatello are mainly made in the cellar, where this ham is aged, giving it different flavors and aromas according to its microclimate.
But it is important to know that the Culatello of Zibello D.O.P. consortium is composed of two groups of members: 14 founders, and another 8 who joined later. The former follow stricter regulations than the latter.
At the time of founding SQUISITO, I chose to follow the rules laid by the founders. Therefore, we only use pigs farmed in Emilia Romagna or Lombardy Regions, instead of using Italian or foreign pigs.
They are mostly Duroc pigs, sometimes mixed with other breeds. But we also use pure black pig, Cinta Senese, and we are trying with an ancient Salerno pig. We source the porks from a butcher that I chose as our sole supplier.
We also directly breed 50 pigs which we use to produce our top line. These are Culatelli with over 24 months of seasoning, Coppa of over 16 months, and Pancetta of more than 2 years. We give these animals time to reach the right weight.
While the farmers slaughter pigs after 6-8 months, when they reach 140-160 kg as beyond this weight they fatten up much more slowly, we grow them to a minimum of 280 kg, sometimes over 300kg, with an age of 18 months sometimes.
These animals develop a greater proportion of fat than meat, with a layer of fat of 10-15 cm, with a beautiful marbling of the meat. Moreover, the greater amount of fat permits a longer maturation.
With our 50 pigs we can produce a maximum of 100 Culatelli of this type, for those customers who appreciate the highest quality and a truly unique product.
At the time of processing, only salt and pepper are permitted in the meat and all sorts of preservatives are absolutely prohibited.
However, the latest members of the consortium can add a preservative, E252 or potassium nitrate, to avoid listeria and salmonella.
But in reality, this additive is not necessary in Culatello due to its long seasoning, as long as you work in a clean environment. E252 is only necessary for very young cold cuts, such as Strolghino, which is eaten after 15 days, but in cold cuts that exceed 3 months of curing preservatives are no longer necessary, although some producers use them anyway, also to ferment the products earlier.
Each producer has its own techniques but I avoid preservatives every time I can and in our Culatello we never use them.
According to the strictest regulations, we are also constrained to produce Culatello only from September to February, while the other members can produce Culatello all year round. This is because the coldest months of the year produce the best Culatello.
Then we must mature Culatello in natural cellars without air-conditioning, while the other producers can age them in cold storage until they are sold.
BC: Why are natural cellars so important for Culatello?
AC: It is in the cellar that the difference in taste is made, as each producer’s cellars give the specificity of its Culatello. While in cold rooms temperature and humidity are constant, in natural cellars they vary with the seasons and with the location and depth of the cellars.
Moreover, the change of air induced by the opening and closing of the windows of the cellars, as it was done in the past, permits a good ventilation, therefore eliminating any hint of ammonia (produced by the microbial activity). Culatello breathes and the microclimate that is created in the cellar brings those specific characteristics to it.
If we compare a Culatello aged for 12 months in a cold store against our own that spent only 3 months in there, and the remaining 9 in the cellar, the first will be ready earlier but will not have much fragrance, while ours will be very rich in flavors but not yet ready. For this reason, we age it in the cellar for at least 16 months.
At SQUISITO we have three different cellars, one of which includes a tasting room. Each of them has its own microclimate that gives Culatello different scents, and they are a real added value to our products. The Culatelli aged in the cellars with more humidity taste more of hazelnut and chestnut, while the ones that age in dryer cellars taste more of undergrowth and coffee.
These are aromas that I myself discovered by tasting our Culatelli with Richard Geoffroy, Chef de Cave of DOM PÉRIGNON.
BC: What are the origins of your partnership with DOM PÉRIGNON?
AC: The Champagne House DOM PÉRIGNON was looking for top gastronomic products to match their wines. One of the leading champagne experts in Italy, Alberto Lupetti, who appreciates our products, suggested us to them.
I presented our 16-month-old Culatello (the youngest), which was later chosen to accompany the launch of the Dom Pérignon 2004. From that moment we have been partners for two years.
We have also been partners of BRUNO PAILLARD with our Culatello but also with our Mariola, one of the most traditional, unique, and difficult salami to make of our region.
I actually really discovered champagne when I started this adventure and these partnerships.
BC: Why do champagne and Culatello go so well together?
AC: Being a sparkling white wine, champagne can be paired with any type of cold cuts, not just Culatello, as champagne allows you to discover numerous facets, just like with cured meats.
You can combine younger champagnes with salami like Strolghino, and more structured champagnes with more mature cured meats with a more intense flavor like Culatello.
The most beautiful pairing I’ve ever tasted was a 24-month-old Culatello with Dom Ruinart 1998. I drink many different champagnes but that’s the one that struck me the most.
I was also lucky enough to drink a champagne from 1969, the oldest I’ve ever tasted, where I found a surprising freshness but with a structure that let me match my 30-month-old Culatello.
BC: You seem to like champagne…:) What does champagne mean to you?
AC: Pleasure! I have the habit of buying 3 bottles of each champagne that seduces me, to taste them at different times and savor their evolutions, just like I do with my cured meats.
For me, champagne is the expression of doing things well and enjoying them. For champagne, just like for cured meats, if you work good raw materials with passion and you have certain cellars where you age them long enough, you get products of the highest quality.