In exactly eight months we will be headed back to Italy with our main adventure being Carnivale in Venice. One of the places we visited last time and unfortunately aren’t returning to because they are closed during the winter is Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais in Parma. This place ended up being so incredible that I will be breaking it into three different posts. The food alone is worth a separate post for each course. We didn’t know much about Parma other than the fact they were known for their cheese so we had no idea what to expect.
From the photos we had seen, which were only a few, we knew it was some type of castle on the Po River bank. The Parma countryside was stunning; the corn fields lined the highway with their golden leaves leaving a glowing aura all around. Old stone churches, which couldn’t hold more than 20 people were scattered throughout, some crumbling to the ground. Coming to the end of the road we crossed into gravel territory. Long horned cattle gazed at us, heads following our car as we drove past. An older church stood at the entrance of the grounds – standing guard for anyone who entered the property. Looking more like a large brick/stone house than a castle we walked through gardens of white and pale pink roses, fresh vegetables glistening in the sun from a water bath and to our surprise, peacocks running around, streaks of color dashing between the gardens. Entering the courtyard, to our left, was an outdoor eating and seating area with a full bar – including a bartender in a full tuxedo. To the right there was the dining room, completely surrounded by windows which looked like they could slide open to expose the whole room. Following the ingresso signs, we stepped into a small room and our senses immediately went into overdrive. The decoration was old cookware – looking almost medieval in age, with little song birds flitting about in their corner cage. The smell was an intriguing musty smell, one that you wanted to find out what it was. There is no description to make it sound in any way appealing but it was almost a cross between Parmesan cheese, wet wood and a wine cellar. There was something so inviting about it. A man named Giovanni greeted us with a warm smile, a curly black head of hair and an incredibly fashion forward outfit for being in the middle of the country. As he led us down a long dark hallway, he started unlocking doors which were hidden in the tapestry covered walls. Pointing out whose room was whose we walked inside, honestly speechless. Our room seemed like it was right out of the Secret Garden. The ceilings were vaulted with little frescos painted in each of the squares. A claw foot tub sat just to the right of the door with a day chair next to it. The beds were two twins with a very fancy headboard and a duvet with deep reds to match the rich brown elements of the room. The daydream of our surroundings was interrupted when Giovanni knocked, holding a silver tray, which he carried over to the brick windowsill. The tray was overflowing with fresh fruit from the grounds; plums that were a deep scarlet, apples in every shape and size and some of the sweetest grapes I had ever tasted. Next to the fruit he brought in a mason jar of bread sticks, a little bag of cookies and very strong house liquor.
We had arranged for Giovanni to take us on the tour of the grounds, so at 3:15 we walked downstairs to find five little bicycles waiting for us. Hopping on, another daydream set in. It was really something out of a movie, riding bikes through the warm Italian countryside, wind calmly blowing through your hair and the sun kissing your face. After 2km, we turned into another section of the property. First stop was the vineyard. The plump red grapes were ready to start being harvested in the next few weeks and they sagged, heavy with juice and radiating a deep red purple. He let us taste them, and again, although not as sweet, the grapes bursting with flavor with each bite. Just behind the vineyard, the squawks and chatter of the geese, chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys and rooster could be heard and seen waddling around. Getting back on our bikes, we rode to the pig section of the farm. Giovanni told us to go inside to see the pigs, curiously not following us, and we very quickly found out why. In this dark, cramped building there was the most rancid, foul odor, accompanied by these disturbing squeals from hundreds of these rare black pigs. Not staying in that building long, we returned to daylight where we were led to the first stage of curing the culatello. Much like prosciutto, culatello is a very fine cut of meat, hung and aged, sometimes for years. This room was floor-to-ceiling racks of hanging hams, wrapped perfectly with string and suspended from wooden slats. He pointed out that they used all of their black pigs for the culatello and only occasionally white pigs. A little smile came over his face again and he told us that every year, Prince Albert of Monaco and Prince Charles send two pigs to have specially cured by them and sent back to them. You cannot buy culatello in the states or anywhere outside of Europe – at least not authentic culatello. If you want it you must supply your own pig to have a personal batch made. Giovanni took us to a small curing rack in the corner, where he once again got giddy and proudly pointed out that the culatello hanging in the center was the one he had made this year; his first time ever. Compared to the others it sort of looked like the runt of the litter but you could see how proud he was of his creation. Hopping back on our bikes we headed back toward the main grounds. Riding along, farmers hand picking their crops, stopped to wave with a friendly smile and hello as we passed. We detoured slightly so Giovanni could show us the Po River and the property they had around it. The river was a murky green brown, accentuated by the bright sun. There was a small private bar with about 15 patrons sitting out front enjoying their riverside view. Popping out by the main pasture of their white long horned cattle, we were back on the main grounds.
By then, the gardens were full of activity like the place had finally woken up. Gardeners were cutting the fresh vegetables; bees were busy flying rose to rose, their golden bodies contrasting with the pale pink petals. The female brown peacock was standing in the middle of the path, squawking at anything or anyone that would listen. The bikes rode past all of the activity, not disturbing anything or anyone and coming to a halt in the courtyard. Giovanni informed us that dinner was from 7:30-10:30 and we could come down when we wanted. Retiring to our rooms, we relaxed, replaying the events of the past few hours. So far, it seemed like this place was something out of a movie or storybook. We would soon realize that this place was the whole package, delivering a once-in-a-lifetime experience with their foods.
© Rachel Davidson and Wine, Dine and Wander, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rachel Davidson and Wine, Dine and Wander with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.