I’ve been promising to write about Lardo di Colonnata for some time now. Unfortunately, it’s not local and isn’t so easy to come by. Or at least I don’t usually stumble upon it in the normal course of events. Until the other night…
I went to see Tamara Drewe with some friends. This is a so-called comedy of manners set in the English countryside. I’m not really sure what that means although it appears to be the exact opposite of English export Ricky Gervais on the Golden Globes last week (not funny, no manners). The movie was okay: not terrible, not great. Major take-home message: Dominic Cooper should never again be permitted to cover his beautiful face with rock star hair and makeup.
Afterwards we went for a pizza. The restaurant was La Sagrestia, just a few steps from the Pantheon. Despite the tourist magnet location, it’s a very fine restaurant and serves a very fine pizza. I was scanning the menu for my usual choice (sausage, onion and mushrooms) when I made the most wonderful discovery: pizza with Lardo di Colonnata!
Lots of places make lardo in Italy but Colonnata is generally acknowledged to make the best. This is a small northern Tuscan hamlet near Carrara, where Michelangelo used to get his marble. Colonnata comes from the Latin word for column and the town itself has been a marble mining site since Roman times. The story goes that ancient Roman marble miners used to fix themselves lardo sandwiches for a quick and filling snack. Whether or not this is true, there is ample literary evidence that Colonnata has been in the lardo business for several thousand years at least.
Lardo di Colonnata comes from the fatback of a local pig (besides marble, pigs are the other big commodity in these parts; not much can be grown in the rocky soils but the pigs do well eating acorns and gamboling around the hills). In case you are wondering (I was), fatback literally means the fat from the back of the animal. I wonder why they don’t call it backfat?
The trimmed fat is cured in big marble basins called conche, which have been liberally rubbed with garlic. Salt, black pepper, rosemary, and garlic are placed in between the layers of fat. The salt is what dries out the fat. Some people add coriander, oregano. sage, star anise, and even cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg. The marble basin is sealed and traditionally left in a cave, where the cool mountain air (Colonnata is in the Apuan Alps) keeps the fatback from going off. After 6-8 months, it’s ready to eat.
While the notion of eating lard might strike some as being pretty disgusting (and I avoided it for many years for just that reason), Lardo di Colonatta is definitely worth a try. Its texture is usually described as ‘silky’ in the lardo literature. It’s served—often draped over toasted rustic bread—in long thin strips that are meltingly buttery with complex herbal notes. Lately I’ve started seeing it wrapped around different cuts of meat.
About 10 years ago, the EU tried to force Colonnata’s lardo makers to modernize their production techniques. After a long battle and with support from the Slow Food movement, the local artisans were able to convince health officials that their products were bacteria free and the EU relented.
My pizza couldn’t have been simpler or more delicious. Tomato sauce, melted cheese and long silken strips of lard. I feel myself becoming a bit lardo obsessed. Anyone care to join me for a trip up north?
La Sagrestia, Via del Seminario 89. 00100 Rome. 06 6797581.