Italian Table Talk: Lardo di Colonnata
If you’ve ever sat down to an antipasto of Tuscan salumi (the Italian word for cured meats in general; not to be confused please with salami!), you’ll know that Tuscans are serious about their cured meats. It’s the topic of this month’s Italian Table Talk, as January is popularly the month for butchering pigs and making salumi in the natural refrigeration that winter provides (if you’re interested in the how-to side of things, see this post on my first experience making salumi with my friend’s family pigs on their farm).
Packed full of flavour to compensate (or complement) the otherwise bland Tuscan bread, some of the favourites include prosciutto toscano (saltier than its Parma cousin), finocchiona (a large, fresh salame named after its principal flavouring – fennel seeds) mortadella di Prato (a smooth mortadella), to name a few. But one of the most prized and unique Tuscan cured meats and one worth seeking out is lardo di Colonnata.
I love what Michael Ruhlman says about lardo in his latest charcuterie book, Salumi, an ode to the art of Italian cured meats: “Lardo is about richness, and the creamy texture of fat and succulence, and all that is good.”
The biggest mistake non-Italian speakers make with this absolutely delicious regional delicacy is that they translate it to “lard”, which, it must be strongly pointed out, it is not. What we call “lard” in English is known as strutto in Italian, which is used commonly for conserving, pastry making or frying. Lardo, however, is cured pig’s back fat, a unique type of salumi. You could think of it a bit like just the fatty part of a beautiful slice of prosciutto – but oh so much more.
Undoubtedly the most wonderful lardo (and the reason for talking about this exquisite food) is the famous Lardo di Colonnata, made using an ancient technique to preserve not just meat but the fat in the village of Colonnata, part of the greater town of Carrara in the north-western corner of Tuscany, near the Ligurian border. Sliced in super thin, practically transparent slices that melt on your tongue, it can simply enjoyed like this as part of an antipasto, or on slices of hot grilled bread for crostini.
The town of Carrara is, of course, famous for its world class white marble, where even the likes of Michelangelo sourced the finest materials to carve his sculptures. It’s a beautiful thing that this prized and prestigious marble is also key to this other art form: making lardo di Colonnata.
The fresh pig’s back fat is first trimmed of any meat hanging on to it until it is just a perfect white slab of fat. It is then layered with salt, pepper, fresh rosemary and sage and a heady mix of sweet, aromatic spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander and cloves. These layers fit snugly in specially-carved marble troughs known as conche and left to cure for six months. No need for preservatives or refrigeration (this is strictly done in the autumn and winter months) as the naturally porous marble and the caves in which they are kept have their own microclimate perfect for curing lardo.
The resulting lardo is a fragrant, silky block of sweet, piggy flavour, perfectly creamy white with a crust of spices and coarse salt. Something about the magic that happens in those marble vats makes this an extremely unique product, with an incredible texture and flavour that will have you instantly hooked.
Something this delicious does not need much messing with; as noted above, simply sliced as part of a salumi board or laid out over some hot grilled bread for a literally melt-in-your-mouth antipasto is perfect. But it goes down a treat with some other simple accompaniments as well. In the nearby Cinque Terre town of Monterosso, which is famous for its salted anchovies, I once tried an unforgettable bruschetta-like dish of crostini with chopped Monterosso anchovies, diced fresh tomato and thin, silky layers of lardo di Colonnata, the perfect mixture of the bursting flavours of two neighbouring regions and their age-old traditions.
For a further tempting look at salumi, check out the discussion with the other Italian Table Talk bloggers. Giulia from Juls’ Kitchen does a classic Tuscan delicacy, buristo, with eggs. Valeria from My Love Life Food has a flavour-packed recipe for guanciale spaghetti and Jasmine from Labna challenges the salumi theme with a kosher amatriciana recipe. Keep up with the conversation by following our monthly blog posts or the twitter hashtag #ITableTalk. Coming up next month, we talk Italian breakfasts.