I ate it for the first time last year in Colonnata, a small Tuscan town high in the Apuan Alps overlooking the peaks of Carrara where Michaelangelo picked out his marble. I’m talking about lardo, but not just any old lard. The lardo from Colonnata is considered the best in the world and is served in some of the trendiest restaurants around the country. It’s been written about in no less an august publication than “The New Yorker.” And “La Cucina Italiana” has featured it in its September/October 2009 issue.
All over Colonnata, signs point to butcher shops where the white back fat is sold, after a seasoning with salt, herbs and spices (black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, among other things) and a curing in boxes sculpted from Carrara marble.
The marble is said to impart a optimal flavor during the six months to twelve months the lard is encased in the tub. The best way to eat it is to enjoy it simply, such as I did, on a warm bruschetta with bits of tomato. But is this cured pork fat worth all the hype?
Depends on whom you ask. Ask anyone in Colonnata and you’re likely to receive a rapturous response, but it’s no surprise when the specialty has been made and eaten in the town since the middle ages. Ask any of the diners at New York City’s Babbo or Le Cirque and they’re likely to rhapsodize melodic as well, since they’re literally putting their money where their mouths are. Even nutritionists are on board. On the blog, “Tuscan Traveler,” Dr. Frank B. Hu, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health is quoted stating that research shows that lard and butter ”aren’t public enemy No. 1 anymore.” It is instead the hydrogenated fats – margarine, for instance, the so-called “healthy” fat of the 1970’s – that have turned out to be the “bad” fats.
But if you ask me, it’s no more and no less flavorful than eating the fat on a slice of good prosciutto. Call mine an uninformed palate if you will, but I couldn’t detect any of the richness that is supposed to emerge after all those spices and aging in marble tubs.
Still, it was worth taking the trip to Colonnata and eating lardo there, not only for the culinary experience, but also for the tour inside the marble caves at nearby Carrara. I took the photo below while inside a mountain of marble, where huge slabs are cut using sophisticated equipment. A lot of the excavation takes place in outdoor quarries as well, where there’s also a small museum depicting how the marble was cut before the use of machine-driven steel cables set with diamond splitters. As recently as 35 years ago, dynamite was used to blast the marble blocks out of the mountain. Then they were hauled down to the valley on large sleds pulled by workers.
Many lives have been lost throughout the centuries due to the dangerous work. This photo is of a monument in Colonnata dedicated to the quarrymen (or cavatore) who lost their lives in the marble quarries. In the background, the white stuff you see is not snow, but Carrara marble that’s been chiseled from the mountain.
Talking about lardo got me to thinking about these two spoons that are hanging on my kitchen wall. They were carved by my great-grandfather on my father’s side. I knew little about the spoons until I interviewed my father and his sister and asked them about their childhood. That’s when the conversation steered to the spoons and how they were used to stir the huge caldron of tomatoes that were put up in jars to sustain them through the winter. But more relevant to the topic of this post is that the large spoon (about 2 1/2 feet long) was used in stirring the lard that was rendered after the annual slaughter of the pig.
Here’s a closeup detail of the spoons. Rustic, yes, but as precious to me as a strand of heirloom pearls.