Meet Cesare Casella, the Tuscan Chef Who's Known as the "Prosciutto Whisperer"
You’ve probably never heard of him, but in the world of restaurants, few chefs are more beloved than Cesare Casella, a bighearted Tuscan who strolls through life with a smile on his face and a sprig of rosemary in his pocket. “Cesare knows everyone. He knows everything about food, and he’s the most generous guy in the world,” says Patrick Martins, author of The Carnivore’s Manifesto. “When we had the pig catastrophe he was the first person I called. I figured if anyone would know what to do, it would be him.”
Martins, who also runs Heritage Foods USA, the country’s main supplier of ethically raised heritage breed meats, is referring to the 2016 fire in which the Edwards Virginia Smokehouse burned to the ground. The inferno
Unlike commodity pork, which comes from pigs bred in factory farms to grow fat fast, the Edwards family relied on pastured pigs raised as they have been since the beginning of civilization. “You can’t make long-aged ham with commodity meat,” Martins says. “After a few months, it just turns to dust. You need good genetics, and one of our Missouri farms has Berkshire pigs with genes going back to Oliver Cromwell’s day. Raising pigs like that takes time, and our farmers had a year’s worth of pigs on the ground.
A tempting plate of prosciutto
The Edwardses were buying 250 hams a week to cure, and if I couldn’t find another buyer for those pigs, the farmers were going to go broke.” Curemasters throughout the South agreed to take the current crop, but it was a temporary reprieve. Martins was worried about the following week, and all the weeks to come. “To my surprise,” he says, “Cesare said, ‘I’ll take them all. I’m going to start making prosciutto.’ And all I could say was, ‘Are you sure?’”
Curing ham the old-fashioned way requires enormous amounts of both
Casella was not unfamiliar with pigs. He grew up in the hills outside Lucca, where his family raised their own chickens and grew vegetables and herbs for their restaurant, Vipore. They also raised a few pigs to make the restaurant’s sausage, salami, and prosciutto. “American pigs taste different from the ones we raise in Italy,” he says. “But I knew the ones Patrick was bringing me were happy animals that had good lives, and I thought if I took enough time and aged on the bone, I could make great American prosciutto. I’d just sold my restaurant in New York, Salumeria Rosi, so I thought, Why not? I’ll take the risk.”
I heard about this crazy guy who named his cows after Puccini operas and I knew I had to meet him.
It was not the first gamble he had taken in his career. In 1992, after earning a Michelin star for Vipore, Casella arrived in New York and started looking for ways to translate his native cuisine to his adopted home. He began with beans. Tuscans eat a lot of beans, but Casella didn’t think much of the ones he found in New York. So he persuaded a farmer he met at the Union Square Greenmarket, Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm, to grow 19 different varieties just for him.
Chef Cesare Casella
Then he turned to beef. He was determined that his first restaurant, Beppe, would serve classic
“I heard about this crazy guy who named his cows after Puccini operas,” says Patrick H. Dollard, the only other Chianina breeder in the Empire State, “and I knew I had to meet him. So I went to Beppe, and it changed my life.”
Dollard is neither cattleman nor farmer. He is the president and CEO of the Center for Discovery, a research facility for people with complex disabilities in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. His cows were part of a radical approach to integrating nutrition and therapy. “When I first came here, more than 30 years ago, I had the stench of institutional food in my nostrils,” he says, having previously worked in more traditional settings. “Our kids are medically fragile, but they’re capable of getting well, and I wanted to blow the system up and get them good food.”
One look at the bucolic campus makes it clear that this is not a man who is content with half measures. The hundreds of buildings—clinics, barns, houses, schools, greenhouses, bakeries—he has built at the ever-expanding Center for Discovery sprawl across 1,500 acres. About 300 of them comprise an organic, biodynamic farm. The
“We began talking,” Dollard says, “and we never stopped. I soon realized that Chezzie isn’t just a chef, he’s a great agronomist. He’s a scientist.” Drawn by the atmosphere and intrigued by the idea of using food as medicine, Casella began showing up at the
I soon realized that Chezzie isn’t just a chef, he’s a great agronomist. He’s a scientist.
The visits gradually turned into a working relationship, and Casella began reorganizing the way the system worked. “Before Chezzie came,” Dollard says, “we had farmers, we had nutritionists, and we had
It’s an enormous job, but as Casella ambles through the fields he makes it all look easy. He pulls some green garlic from the ground and sniffs appreciatively at the aroma now filling the air. He says hello to the 850 laying hens, and he goes looking for pigs that have retreated to a sheltered spot beneath some trees. He points to a huge hoop house filled with basil: “We’ll freeze most of this for winter.” Then he wades in among the tomatoes, brushing against the fragrant leaves, seeking out the ripest ones. “These were the first Canestrino di Lucca tomatoes in America,” he says, gently stroking the strangely ribbed orbs. “When I couldn’t find them here I planted seeds from home. They make the best sauce.”
When the Hudson Valley Seed Company got wind of these unusual tomatoes, they wanted to sell the seeds. “They named them for me!” Casella
Besides the market, Hurleyville is also where he began his prosciutto project. “He hovers over those legs,” Martins says, “anxiously watching them. He wants them to be perfect. Last spring, when the first prosciutto was finally ready, he was so nervous. He went around asking what everyone thought. Was it good enough?”
Tomatoes on a farm
Softer than the prosciutto of Parma, its
The Edwards family is back in business, but Martins’s Midwestern farmers are still sending Casella hundreds of hams every week. They raise a variety of breeds, from the robust Berkshire to the almost extinct Red Wattle, each of which has its own characteristics. The differences in size,
Back at the
This story appears in the October 2018 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors