Some Italian delicacies don’t require much of a leap of faith. Newcomers to gelato, for instance, aren’t usually hesitant to taste their first spoonful – and pizza hardly needs an advocacy group. Lardo, on the other hand, isn’t always an easy sell.
To be frank, it’s usually a texture thing.
Italian lardo is cured pork fat – yes, the lard which the Italian word so closely resembles – and the most famous lardo comes from the Tuscan town of Colonnata, just outside Carrara. The lardo produced in Colonnata is only the second-most-famous export from the area, however – it’s a distant second, in fact, to the pristinely-white Carrara marble. And as it happens, the history of lardo di Colonnata is closely tied to the history of Carrara’s marble.
The marble mountains around Carrara have been slowly whittled down for more than 2,000 years, as builders and artists vied for the coveted material. Before the marble quarries were mechanized, the literally back-breaking work was all done by men who needed to live close enough to the quarries so they didn’t spend half their workday commuting. The town of Colonnata was established between two quarries of Carrara, which made for a short commute but didn’t provide residents with much in the way of land they could cultivate for food.
Thankfully, pigs didn’t require big pastures and could live happily on a diet of what the workers could gather in the area – principally acorns and chestnuts. Partly in an attempt to not waste anything of the precious annual pig butchering, people in Colonnata found they could not only use the meat from the pig but also the lard – and by curing the lard, they could make it last even longer. The lardo they created provided much-needed calories to quarry workers, who spread thick layers of it on bread for their midday meals.
Carrara’s marble is quarried today in a very different manner than it was 2,000 years ago, but production of Colonnata’s lardo is essentially unchanged. The lard is still collected in marble (of course) tubs, usually in household basements, and covered with a combination of salt and herbs. It’s left to cure for several months, during which time the salt draws moisture out of the lard, allowing the herbs to infuse it with flavor and preventing bacteria from taking hold. The process can’t be mechanized, it can’t be expanded, it can’t be “sterilized,” and it can’t be rushed – which means that despite growing demand for authentic lardo di Colonnata, the amount produced each year can’t really be increased.
As you might expect, this led to enterprising “copycat” lardo producers in towns near-but-not-in Colonnata but still calling their product lardo di Colonnata. They argue that their process is the same and the end result is the same, but many claim that it’s not just the ingredients and the Carrara marble tubs that make Colonnata lardo so special, it’s also the way the wind blows through the town itself (yes, really).
The European Union has given lardo di Colonnata the status of IGP (in English, Protected Geographical Indication), which means a product must be at least partially made within a specified region – but what makers of lardo di Colonnata really want is DOP designation (in English, Protected Designation of Origin), which says the whole product must be made entirely within the specified region. Evidently the fact that lardo di Colonnata has its own Facebook fan page isn’t the same thing.
All this is to say that if you’re headed to Colonnata in search of authentic lardo, you need to be prepared to read the fine print on the label to make sure it’s actually from Colonnata, and you need to be ready to pay for it if it is. Both of the sparkling white products the area is famous for – Carrara marble and Colonnata lardo – have high pricetags attached to them.
Visitor’s Information: What to Know if You Want to Go
The town of Colonnata is what’s known as a frazione of Carrara, which lies near the Tuscan coast in the northern part of the region. It can be a good day trip from Pisa, Lucca, or even Florence, as well as the Ligurian towns of La Spezia and the Cinque Terre.
The closest sizable airport to Carrara is Tuscany’s largest international airport – the Galileo Galilei Airport in Pisa (PSA) – but if you have trouble finding a good deal on flights to Pisa and you’re looking for alternate airports, Carrara is closer to Milan than Rome (although it depends where you’re flying from whether you’ll find better prices on Rome airfare or Milan airfare, so it’s always worth checking both).