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We spoke with Curemaster Cesare Casella about his passion for prosciutto and why ethical agriculture is his most prescient endeavor.
Our editors at Iconic Life have a penchant for the finer things in life. We have covered award-winning chefs who learned their trade at Michelin-starred restaurants and perused the best tasting menus across the states, but never have we covered someone whose publicly-appointed title calls for such a deep dive into the meaning behind the moniker. Cesare Casella is the Tuscan chef whose mouth-watering cured hams have offered him global accolades and a nickname that causes a smile to spread across his very own face. He is…the Prosciutto Whisperer.
If you are in the culinary industry, Casella’s name will arouse recognition, otherwise you may have seen him on a handful of television series such as Top Chef and After Hours with Daniel Boulud. He has opened some of New York’s most beloved restaurants including Beppe and Maremme, he was also a James Beard Foundation nominee for his book about classic Italian cuisine and one of the authors who contributed to the award-winning book “Feeding the Heart,” a collection of culinary recipes featuring the healing qualities of food and their ingredients for those with complex disabilities. And just this past February, his characteristically juicy, marbled prosciutto won the People’s Choice award at the annual Charcuterie Masters festival in New York City.
And just this past February, his characteristically juicy, marbled prosciutto won the People’s Choice award at the annual Charcuterie Masters festival in New York City.
Heritage Foods USA
Among these recognitions, he is currently producing some seriously delicious cured-on-the-bone prosciutti through his brand Casella’s, of which his product Prosciutto Speciale is made in collaboration with Heritage Foods USA. Aged between 18 to 24 months, the delicacies offered are simple—made with just salt and time. The ham he uses comes from heritage breed American pigs raised on family-run farms across the Midwest. The eco-minded and independent farmers focus on producing Heritage livestock, some of whose ancestral roots can be traced back some 5,000 years ago to the early days of agricultural. This move against the mainstream mass production of livestock is what holds the brand to such high standards in an unregulated industry that often produces low-quality meats and dairy products for the public. Casella’s partnership with Heritage Foods and ethical farmers is a call-to-action to consume more conscientiously and promote a farm-to-table diet.
Photo by Daniel Gritzer
There are savants from obscure corners of the culinary and art world, sculptors and artisans alike who have pushed our understanding of what it means to create above the rest. Cesare’s dedication to his craft proves he is among an important sector of artisans who make a product whose process is equally as important as the thing itself. Casella’s early appreciation of farming stems from his childhood in Lucca, Italy where fertile farmland lines the Serchio River. While his friends ran off to play, Casella preferred to play with the pigs and other animals on his grandfather’s farm—at times causing a glance of insanity from his peers. You can imagine his joy when he was later given his now infamous title as a successful adult.
We caught up with Casella to understand his passion behind prosciutto and how it all begins from the very soil that he raises his happy pigs on.
Q & A What was the difference between how pigs were raised in Italy versus America?
The difference is less about Italy versus America and more about conventional practices versus artisanal. The popular Prosciutto di Parma uses a breed called suino pesante or Large White. They are raised inside; they don’t forage for their own food but are given only feed. They are raised to be the same and have the same characteristics. Instead, we produce prosciutti using only heritage breed pigs that are pasture-raised by independent family farmers. The heritage pigs are more similar to the pigs my grandfather would have raised in the Italian countryside when I was growing up.
Photo by Pia Tempestini
Q & A How does raising pigs outside in open spaces help give them a more characteristic flavor?
The pigs are kind of like people in that living in an open space they get more exercise, they are healthier and stronger versus if they lived inside. There is less concern with the need to medicate them, because their bodies are much stronger. They can forage for what they like and have a more diverse diet. They are exposed to the soil and have more minerality. Pasture-raised pigs have much more variation than the industrial counterpart. Just like people, when the pigs are free, they are different from one another, some prefer to run more and are leaner while others are lazier and like to relax in the mud. All of these tendencies affect the characteristics of the ham and in the end the prosciutto.
Q & A Why is using heritage pigs an important practice for you?
Essentially, heritage breeds can be traced back prior to industrial farming. Many of these breeds are disappearing or would be gone completely if not for the small independent farmers who are committed to raising them and the growing number of consumers who are interested in eating them. Heritage Foods USA sources all of our hams, which Heritage sources from nine different independent family farmers. They work with a slaughterhouse that adheres to best practices when it comes to animal welfare.
Q & A Can you share with us about your process of curing the ham?
The hams are brought to the aging facility where they are salted before passing through eight different aging rooms that mimic the seasons in Italy through temperature and humidity. After a minimum of 18 months of this process, the prosciutti are ready to be enjoyed.
Q & A What are the differences that consumers can taste with your ham?
How they are raised make them really flavorful, like an elegant wine. There are many factors that affect the ham including time of the year and how they were raised. My prosciutto has a lot of personality, it is dark pink, almost red (depending on the breed) and can sometimes taste very nutty or like licorice, while the fat can be sweet like butter.
Most importantly, you have to start with good pigs. They must be happy and have a nice life to make good prosciutto. The animals give you respect if you give them respect and from there a relationship forms.
Q & A Where can consumers find your prosciutto? Do you have plans for your Prosciutto Speciale in 2019?
The prosciutti is available on restaurant menus and retailers around the US and in terms of plans for this year, we were lucky to receive an enthusiastic reception to the prosciutto. Already we are distributed nationally but have continued plans to focus on keeping the quality of the product high, even if that means quantity is limited. We are committed to the product being wonderful.
Working with the Center for Discovery I am involved with food and farming and all the things I love. I enjoy having more diverse activities in my life versus the kitchen grind.
Q & A What would you like to share with our readers about cultivating a beautiful and enriched life?
I am a country boy. I love the country. It’s where I grew up and how I started my life in Italy. New York has been very good to me, and I still live in NYC, but since leaving the restaurant business, I try to do more of the things I enjoy, like working on this prosciutto project, which brings me back to my country boy roots. Some days I miss the restaurant business, but now I travel more in Italy, I spend more time upstate on the farm and I spend more time with family. Working with the Center for Discovery I am involved with food and farming and all the things I love. I enjoy having more diverse activities in my life versus the kitchen grind. In this time of my life, I am focusing on what I love most, and I feel so lucky for that.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still love the restaurant business, and you never know what is to come in the future.
The institution is clearly a passion project for Casella, just like with the ham, he operates from the heart, making nearly 1,800 meals a day for the 500 residents and students.
Photo by Pia Tempestini
His most proud role has been his position as Chief of DNA (the Department of Nourishment Arts) at the Center for Discovery in the bucolic landscape of upstate New York. He began working with the center in 2003 as a consultant for specific projects, and in 2012 he helped found the department, bringing together the nutrition team and chefs to create sustainable food grown from their farm. The institution is clearly a passion project for Casella, just like with the ham, he operates from the heart, making nearly 1,800 meals a day for the 500 residents and students. He leads a team of 30 chefs, watches over the farm, and works with the nutritionists who use the home-grown food to prepare herbaceous, nutrient-rich meals for the residents whose medical conditions are complex, from blindness to paralysis.
Casella and the staff operate from a belief system that a quality of life stems from everyday health, beginning from the seeds grown at their own farm where each plant is tended to with mindfulness and continues into the food preparation and cooking that is done with the utmost care, they call this their Seed to Belly philosophy. He says working here is like working on the farm as a boy—bringing beauty out from the earth and into the home.
Elena Kazlouskaya / Shutterstock
“I like to pair my prosciutto with local cheeses, whether I am in Colorado or Vermont. It is so interesting to taste the flavors unique to that area. The best way to serve it is to never cook it too much. So, if you want to put it on the top of a pizza, add it as the last step. It is made to be ready to eat because of the aging process and over-cooking can take away the flavor. Prosciutto is like ketchup for American’s, it is a staple on the table.”
Opening up a package of Heritage Farms hand-cured prosciutto will reveal sliced ribbons of dark pink ham; it is both delicate, lithe, and buttery to the touch. And it is anything but your grocery store prosciutto crudo. You can shop a range of his goods through Eately and Wegmans or find them at a handful of restaurants across the country. This includes a melt-in-your mouth salami picante with a hit of heat, and of course, his renowned prosciutto that is fresh and ready to serve. Savoring this cured treat is not something you need to do over a white tablecloth with mood lighting, in fact, we encourage you to do it in the comfort of your own home, perhaps sipping a full glass of wine and indulging in an hors d’oeuvres that was produced by the Prosciutto Whisperer himself. Buon appetito!