Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P.
Lardo di Colonnata is one of the great gastronomical traditions of Italy. Simply put, it is aged fatback. But what delicious fatback it is!
Colonnata, its earliest recorded history dating to around 40 B.C.E., is a hamlet with a present-day population of about 300 residents, nestled in the Apuan Alps, the mountain range that is home to world-famous Carrara, situated on the Carrione River, about 100 kilometers west-northwest of Florence. Carrara is where the quarries from which Michelangelo obtained his marble are situated; and Colonnata—its name believed to have derived from the Latin word “columna,” meaning column, since many of the marble columns that decorated the Roman Empire were of marble from the area—is a subdivision of the city and commune of Carrara, in the Province of Massa Carrara, in the Region of Tuscany. But while Carrara is, in general, famous for its white and blue-gray marble, Colonnata is, in particular, famous for its pearl-white lardo—aged in precious marble!
How and when it first occurred to people to cure fatback in “conche,” hollowed-out, sarcophagus-looking (sans decorative carvings) blocks of white marble from the Canaloni marble beds, has been lost to history. (Whereas some deposits of marble in Carrara proper make for excellent sculpture material, the marble from the Canaloni Basin is more suitable for columns and other architectural elements. The marble is hard, dry, and glassy. Today, it is known that the porous, calcium carbonate surface of the marble absorbs some of the fat’s cholesterol that is not naturally reduced during the long aging process and also helps to create the salty, brownish brine, “salamora” in Italian, a byproduct of the aging process. And university studies have confirmed that the final product is bacteria-free—after all, very few things can live in a vat filled with salt). Any or all of the area’s primary inhabitant-cultures could have initiated or contributed to the tradition of lardo di Colonnata. The Romans were very much aware of the importance of pig fat in their diet, especially for people engaged in strenuous work and activities—so much so that the Justinian Code stipulated that Roman soldiers were to receive a ration of pork fat every three days. The historical record indicates that the processing of pigmeat increased considerably during the Lombard occupation. (Master masons during the Lombard period would receive 10 pounds of pork fat as a condition precedent to their beginning a newly assigned project). And in the medieval period, there were significant advancements in the techniques for processing and conserving pork. Discovered in the area are marble basins, each hollowed-out from single, solid blocks, dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, that were used for curing pig fat. Also noteworthy is the fact that several of Colonnata’s 19th -century edifices depict, in low-relief, images of St. Anthony, the hermit who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries and by the 11th century had become known for his work in curing persons inflicted with shingles (popularly known as “holy fire” or “Saint Anthony’s fire”) by applying pig fat to the skin of the inflicted, the saint oftentimes depicted in those reliefs accompanied by a pig. Additionally, of note is the fact that Colonnata’s parish church is dedicated to St. Bartholomew, the patron saint of butchers, and that for many years on St. Bartholomew’s Day, there was an annual pig fat festival held in the village, attracting a large number of Italian and international connoisseurs. Clearly, the urge to preserve fat as a source of food, especially for sustenance during the harsh winter months, was the result of experienced scarcity. And with the Colonnatese being a quarrying people, marble would have been a readily available material that could be put to collateral use to protect the aging fat from scavenging animals and to conceal it from marauding and invading humans. What is known for sure is that with the decline of Rome in the 5th century, the “Barbarians,” most famously the Lombards, who ruled Italy from 568 to 774, took up residence in the area, joining the remaining quarry workers (who were typically people from across the known world, enslaved by the Romans and brought to the region to toil in the marble quarries), and the focus of the area shifted from quarrying impeccable marble for statutes and monuments and buildings to raising swine and producing the items derived therefrom, lardo perhaps being one of them. (Today, the Colonnatese do not raise their own pigs for lardo production since only the fatback is used and the region is not conducive to the production of the other traditional pork products of Italy. So the producers of lardo purchase suitable fatbacks from swine farms). What is also known is that from time immemorial, the aging of lard has been part and parcel to Colonnatese culture. But however the tradition of lardo di Colonnata emerged, it eventually became apparent that there is something particular about the Colonnata microclimate that makes the mountainside village perhaps the best place on Earth for aging fatback: high altitude (average height of 1,800 feet above sea level); high precipitation; high humidity; moderate summer temperatures; and small or modest daily temperature fluctuations throughout the year. The cold, white marble basins used for curing the fat promote the condensation of the humidity in the air, converting the salt into brine. And all the foregoing factors become even more pronounced in the marble cellars and workrooms where the fat is aged.
The method of producing lardo di Colonnata is at once simple, beautiful, noble, unique. Prior to being packed tight with slabs of fatback, the marble vat is “prepped”: A fist of garlic is halved at its “equator,” then the open face of the fist is rubbed onto the entire interior surface of the marble vat, the garlic serving as a natural antibiotic. Fresh (trimmed within 72 hours of slaughter and never having been subjected to freezing since freezing would seal the pores, thereby adversely affecting the infusion of the salt and flavorings and the release of the moisture of the fat), quadrangular slabs of fatback, at least 1.25 inches thick, but usually about 2.5 inches thick, are cut from the back of pig—the section from immediately behind the head to about midway down its center-back or even all the way to the rump—washed with cool water, then pat-dried. The slabs of fresh pork are then generously rub-covered with coarse sea salt and placed skin-down into the marble conche, the bottom of which has been covered with a layer of sea salt then a layer of seasonings comprised primarily of black pepper, with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, and a blend of herbs such as fresh rosemary (which, besides adding flavor, also serves as an antioxidant), sage, and oregano, as well as chopped garlic cloves. (The various ingredients and their proportions vary from producer to producer). The salt-rubbed slabs of fatback are snugly arranged so as to occupy the entire bottom of the marble box. A layer of coarse sea salt, then a layer of herbs and spices, is evenly distributed over the fat before the stacking process of skin-down fatback, followed by salt and seasonings, then followed by another layer of fatback, etc., is repeated until the marble container is filled, a layer of salt and spices being the uppermost layer. The marble container is then sealed with a snug-fitting marble lid, and the pork is allowed to age for a minimum of six months, but typically for an average of nine to 12 months, and possibly for as many as four years, in the ideal Colonnata climate. The aging of the product must take place in a site with little ventilation and no artificial air-conditioning. At the end of an aging cycle, the cured fat is extracted and packaged, and the remaining brine is vacuum-removed from the conche, the vat thereafter washed clean with a solution of hot water and vinegar and allowed to air-dry. Immediately prior to receiving a new batch of fatback for aging, the interior surface of the vat is again rubbed with fresh garlic as described above.
Per production rules, the slaughtering of the pigs and processing of the fat occurs only in the colder months of the year, September to May, inclusive. (In the past, the pigs were slaughtered and the fatback processed only in the coldest months—January and February—in order to safeguard the natural character of the production process). The result, at the end of the aging process, is a moist, fragrant, buttery-soft, melt-in-the-mouth, sweet-savory, exquisitely seasoned fat that is traditionally sliced paper-thin and laid atop slices of crisp bread and garnished with freshly chopped tomatoes to be eaten as antipasti. Lardo di Colonnata is also traditionally served as a complement to fresh onions and salted anchovies. (In the olden days, whenever meat was scarce, laborers would sustain themselves with lardo sandwiches—thin slices of lardo di Colonnato between two hefty slices of homemade bread and nothing more).
Lardo di Colonnata received I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 2004, meaning that only lardo made within the specified geographical region—per established production standards—may bear the designation, “Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P.”
Today, with the mechanization of quarrying, most of Colonnata’s population has emigrated in search of other work opportunities, leaving a native population numbering only in the hundreds. But the hands-on, cottage-industry nature of the production of lardo di Colonnata has ensured its survival as a labor-intensive delicacy. And today, the product constitutes the principal economic resource of the village. Perhaps the most celebrated producer of lardo di Colonnata is the firm of Larderia Fausto Guadagni, www.larderiafaustoguadagni.com , whose family has been producing the delicacy for generations. The commercial enterprise was established in 1949. And since the 1950s, the product has been receiving national and international acclaim as one of the culinary luxuries of the world.
But all lardos are not from Colonnata. A buyer must therefore be aware of what to look for if what he desires is “the real McCoy.” Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P. is typically sold in slab-form in vacuum-packed plastic (or some other suitable) packaging, weighing between 250 and 5,000 grams. The product may also be sold sliced or diced and packaged accordingly. The label on the packaging must bear clear and of legible characters; the logo of village of Colonnata must be on the package; the words “Lardo di Colonnata,” followed by the designation I.G.P. or “Indicazione Geografica Protteta” must be the most prominent lettering on the packaging; and there must be a non-reusable product seal affixed to the rind of the product, among other labeling requirements.
(A similar high-quality product, Valle d’Aosta’s lardo d’Arnad, is made in the Aosta Valley).