Lardo di Colonnata - Typical products of Tuscany
Lardo di Colonnata
In the last newsletter Tuscan Journey we focused on bruschetta, one of the most typical winter Tuscan dishes. We rarely talk about food in these monthly discussions, and now we have mentioned bruschetta, I cannot resist continuing with this theme.
This month, I would like to introduce to you a food that is probably the best natural accompanient to the bruschetta, mainly due to its seasonality and unqiue compatibility of taste - il Lardo di Colonnata (basically strips of cured pork fat).
Colonnata is a small town of no more than 300 inhabitants, situated among the Alps at around 540 metres above sea level. Thanks to the "lardo", the number of visitors sometimes exceeds the number of residents who come by car up through the Alps every year to see this small imprisoned like village wedged between the white facades of rock.
Colonnata is a fraction of the town of Carrara, and is surrounded by great marble caverns, the same sheer white marble used for centuries in sculptures and for some of the greatest architectural monuments in Italy and even the rest of the world. But the marble is not only used for sculptures, and even Michelangelo who, 500 years ago climbed the Alpian Peaks in search of the finest marble, also knew of the marble's other end-use. From time immemorial the marble cutters have used the smallest chunks of marble to make shell-like moulds in which lardo, a fundamental part of the local's diet, is conserved.
The Lardo di Colonnata, famous, and often emulated with somewhat disappointed results throughout Italy, is made by curing strips of pork taken from the pig's back. The meat is traditionally cut in January into rectangular slices with a width of at least 3 centimetres and weighing anything between 250g to 5kg. The slices of lardo are left to cure for a few months in the marble moulds, in cool, dry cellars.
The storage and curing of the lardo is unique. The marble mould are made of a specific type of marble that comes from one marble-cuttter, Canaloni, in the region of Colonnata, and is considered the best for curing the lardo. The marble is washed with hot water and then cold, and before the lardo is enclosed in its marble case, the inside of the casing is brushed lightly with garlic. Then the lardo is arranged in layers, each layer separated by spices like black pepper, sea salt, little pieces of garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cloves, aniseed, sage and origano. Watching the preparation, one gets the distinct impression of being in an Oriental spice market.
The cut slice of bread looks the sole of a shoe. Traditionally it is roasted lightly - only the outer layer - on a bed of coals. The fire wood (oak, chesnut and olive) gives the bread a taste similar to that of pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven, something that no electric oven could ever do.
The precious marble boxes and their contents are covered by heavy marble blankets, and left to cure for about 6 months, carefully watched over by an artisan butcher who can tell when the product is ready to be eaten or sold. The Lardo di Colonnata, famous throughout the whole of Italy, is usually served in fairly thin slices, just like prosciutto ham. The lardo takes it colour from the marble, a creamy white, veined bronze and the upper surface Is covered with salt and spices it has been enclosed with for the last 6 months or so. The result is a soft and almost sweet flavour when tasted . Going back to the bruschetta, one of the best ways to enjoy the Lardo is to let a thin sliver melt over a fresh, lightly toasted slice of bread.
Lardo di Colonnata is a true winter speciality and though considered a poor man's dish, It Is substantial and energy giving, and thus has been the classic diet of the marble cutter for centuries providing the energy for their back-breaking work. Today, Lardo, which by law cannot be called by any other name, is protected by the IGP certification (Protected Geographical Origin) and is used by all the best chefs and not just in Italy.
If you ever have the chance to visit the Appuane Alps, keep the following description in mind. Written by Rutilio Namaziano, someone we have already encountered on the Tuscan Journey. In 417 AD, on his travels to France, he caught sight of Luni, the main gate town at the foot of Colonnata. Today it still contains many important ruins, but in Rutilio's time Luni was a town built completely out of marble as white as the snow, or of the Lardo di Colonnata today just as then.
Having reach the port of Luni, Rutilio describes the town of Luni whose name evokes the moon, sister of the sun, and source of the clear light...
Travelling rapidly we come to the white walls
to which the sun's brilliant sister gives its name.
Its huge white stones eclipse the sparkling lilies
And, dappled, the rays polish the stones smooth.
Rich of marble is the earth, and the light of colour
sumptuously challenges the pure snow.
and here is the original as our translation does not really do justice to it...
Scivolando veloci veniamo alle candide mura
cui la sorella che del sole splende assegna il nome.
Supera con i suoi massi i gigli ridenti
e, screziata, irraggia levigato nitore la pietra.
Ricca di marmi Ŕ la terra, e con la luce del colore
sfida sontuosa le inviolate nevi".
Rutilio Namaziano, De Redito Suo - Il Ritorno, Einaudi,1992