Lardo is trendy. Mario Batali is putting it on his pizzas at Otto in New York City and Le Cirque 2000 slices it melting-thin and drapes it over warm country bread. Trattorias and restaurants throughout Italy serve it. Italian butchers and delis sell it by the gram and by the kilo.
Most claim to serve Lardo di Colonnata. But statistics show that 6.5 million kilograms of purported “Lardo di Colonnata” are consumed in Italy per year and Colonnata only produces 160,000 kilos (352,739 pounds) of the savory fat, so about 7 times out of ten it’s not from the mountain village near Carrara (see Dove Vai? – Colonnata, Village of Anarchists, Lardo and Marble).
Lardo is pork fatback and is 100% fat. So lardo will never melt on your tongue? But olive oil is also 100% fat. And according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, lard (lardo) is lower in saturated fat, and higher in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats than butter. The department’s nutrient database also reports that it is lower in cholesterol. Dr. Frank B. Hu, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said 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.
For over one thousand years lardo has been made in the same way in Colonnata. The process starts in the fall when pigs of at least nine months of age and weighing over 350 pounds are butchered. Rectangular strips of fatback, each at least one and quarter inch thick, are cut. The maturation takes place in marble tubs (le conche di marmo) placed in caves or cool cellars. To give the lard its unique flavor the tubs are rubbed with garlic and the lard is immersed in brine. Sea salt mixed with spices and herbs (always rosemary, peppercorns, and garlic, but sometimes including anise seed, thyme, oregano, sage, nutmeg, and cloves) is rubbed all over each slab in a thick layer. The strips are fit, puzzle-like, layer upon layer in the marble casks, repeating the process over and over. Once the tub is full, it is covered with a wooden lid or a marble cover. The curing time runs from a minimum of six months to one year. A festival in Colonnata marks the traditional date of maturation each August.
Lardo of Colonnata is white with a pink streak. Thanks to the particular maturation procedure, the Lard of Colonnata is a natural product, free from preservatives and coloring. The best way to eat this lard is on toasted bread or on polenta, laying a paper-thin slice of room temperature lardo on the still warm bread (see photo) or polenta. For a savory-sweet treat, dot sliced lardo with fig preserves or mostarda di frutta (an Italian condiment made with candied fruit and powdered mustard). Let the lardo melt on your tongue followed by the sweet taste with the mustard kick. Despite the amount of salt used in curing the fatback, lardo is surprisingly mild.
To preserve lardo after slicing, leave it with its salt- and herb-encrusted coating (do not cut off the rind after slicing and save the end slice) and wrap it in a damp cloth. Store it in a cellar or at the bottom of the fridge in the vegetable drawer.
Despite its century-long history, the most eventful times for lardo have been recent. In April 1996, the powers-that-be realized that the lardariums had never been inspected or authorized by the Board of Health. European Union food inspectors got involved. Countless conche di marmo were sealed and several hundred pounds of lard were confiscated from Colonnata’s dirt-floored cellars and caves. The resulting analysis revealed that all samples tested were found beyond reproach and it was proven once and for all that the use of marble containers posed no health threat. Despite the laboratory findings, however, producers were ordered to meet existing health practices, including using preservatives and disposable plastic tubs, tiling the cellars, forbidding use of the caves for aging – essentially bankrupting the lardariums. The EU’s action caused a grass-roots movement that led to Lardo di Colonnata becoming one of the first traditional Italian foods, made using many of the ancient methods, to be protected under the Arca del Gusto di Slow Food, supported by the Slow Food Italia organization, Provincia di Massa Carrara and the Regione Toscana. Twelve of the fourteen producers were able to remain in business.
The Presidio has also moved against the “fake” lardo moving stealthily into the Italian market from inside and outside the country. So now back to the question of wether the lardo you buy is from Colonnata. If you are paying a premium for the product, ask to see the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) brand on the rind. Also, be aware that other regions of Italy produce great lardo. In 1996, Valle d’Aosta received DOP (Denominazinione di Origine Protetta) for Lardo di Arnad, once made in oak casks, and now aged in steel containers. It is sometimes stored thereafter in glass jars, covered with white wine. From Cavour, a small town in the Piemonte region, a famous butcher, Silvio Brarda, produces a special rosemary-infused lardo, Lardo al rosmarino di Cavour. The “poor brother” (fratello povero) of lardo, is produced near Florence. Lardo Val di Greve, made from special mature Cinta Senese pigs, is known for its reasonable price and delicate flavor.
The trattorias, cafés and bars of Colonnata serve lardo in a multitude of ways for snacks or full meals. One of the best places for lunch or dinner after touring the village and buying lardo to take home (eat before arriving in the U.S., lardo is forbidden by the Customs Service) is Trattoria Locanda Apuana, Via Comunale, 1, (closed Sunday dinner and Monday) just down the main road from the central square.