Friday, September 18, 2009

Lardo and Family Heirlooms

Colonnata lard 

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.

Colonnata sign

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.    

trucks inside caves

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.

Carrara memorial

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.

Sept. 2009 089-1

Here’s a closeup detail of the spoons. Rustic, yes, but as precious to me as a strand of heirloom pearls.

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  1. Your heirlooms are precious indeed Linda. What great history you have to past down to your kids. As for the lardo, I often wondered what all the hype was about, but I would make that trip just to see the view! I thought it was snow at first glance!

  2. Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich's place Del Posto in NYC serve lardo on crostini to DIE FOR!!!!!! It's so hard to find in the states.
    Great post!

  3. I have had lardo, but now I want to try again, after reading your post, to determine if I can recognize the spices.

    Love the marble mountain, sounds like such an interesting tour. I want a marble kitchen...

    The spoons are awesome.

  4. Interesting post Linda! My husband has always loved lardo seasoned with red pepper flakes. I was horrified that it was raising his cholesterol, so he stopped eating it for many years .. he'll be happy to hear that it isn't so dangerous to his health!

    I'd love to visit the marble caves and quarries of Carrara -- hard to believe there is so much marble in one place!

    Your heirloom spoons are treasures..if they could only talk!

  5. I love lardo, but yes... impossible to find here!

  6. Although a lot of people "schiv'" the idea of pure fat... when lardo is made right, Mamma Mia! It's absolutely fantastic!

  7. I simply love lardo di colonnata, especially on a slice of fried polenta!

  8. I'd love to taste that lardo!



  9. What an interesting post! I never heard of Lardo. A great conversation piece to bring up with my Italian friends!

    The marble caves are incredible too! I never really thought about the excavation process. We take so many things for granted, never realizing the skill, danger and time that is involved in so many processes.

    And the spoons....PRICELESS!! We are carving spoons from my grandparents old apple tree for Christmas presents. What a great inspiration!!

    Rebecca - the "& Co." half :)