To get to Colonnata from Fantiscritti you have to go through a very long narrow tunnel that is dead straight, one way only and a little eerie. It’s so straight and long that it’s like one of those optical illusions with mirrors that seemingly extend to infinity. It's well lit but maybe not for those who are claustrophobic.
Colonnata is probably not a name that means anything to non-Italians but it is very famous in Italy and not primarily for its marble, though it is clearly a marble town. The name appears on serious restaurant menus everywhere for its main product, Lardo di Colonnata. This is not your average lump of cooking lard but a highly prized delicacy that has been produced here by traditional methods since Roman times.
It's as white as the marble in the surrounding mountains but unlike lard it is not rendered and clarified but rather it's cured (not smoked) with herbs and spices and matured for up to seven months in cool marble containers. These act as natural fridges because the outside temperature here at 1,800 feet is either cold or at least quite cool for most of the year.
Lardo di Colonnata is not used for cooking, it is simply too good and too delicate. Instead it is sliced paper thin (ideally a lot thinner than I managed in the photo below) and eaten as an antipasto on hot bread. The idea is to let it soften and melt slightly on something warm, becoming almost translucent, rather than apply heat directly to the lardo itself. A perfect wine match would be something with refreshing acidity like a sparkling wine from the Trento DOC.
Colonnata is the sort of place that you probably have to grow up in to fully appreciate, especially in winter. It’s not an unattractive little village and has the same narrow alleyways typical of all Italian mountain towns except here there is more marble used for paving.
But the mountains crowd over the town and the winter sun makes only a brief appearance as it appears from behind one mountain and quickly disappears behind another. A glimpse of the sea would make all the difference perhaps but there isn’t one. In Fantiscritti there are no villages or houses nearby but here in Colonnata the quarries are all around and they impose themselves on the town.
On a winter's day with the clouds swirling about there's nothing pretty about the Colonnata mountains but just like Fantiscritti, beneath the dark exterior of the rocks there is plenty of white marble contained within.
And there couldn't possibly be centuries of quarrying without also witnessing a continual loss of life over the years and with almost one death per year over the last ten years, the safety record here falls short of that expected in a modern industrial society. There is a very graceful memorial in Colonnata to the lost cavatori.
Colonnata clearly receives a lot of visitors in the summer because of its famous product and as you walk the narrow streets every building seems to house a larderia in its basement.
In fact about twenty years ago (according to Bruna below), two thousand year old traditions were almost upended overnight by the European Union who chose to see only the dirty floors of cellars, when pronouncing the manufacture of lardo di Colonnata as unsanitary, and not the process itself where the enormous quantity of salt used in the maturation guaranteed a safe final food product.
As a general rule our view would be that if a food product has been made the same way for 2,000 years it’s probably safe to eat, but the EU chose to pick a fight and not just with lardo but everywhere in Italy with many of the food traditions going back centuries. This gave birth to the Slow Food movement, now a global movement but started in Italy, to preserve the traditional approach to local food and we like to think it is now winning. But don’t expect to see this delicacy in the US anytime soon as the FDA won’t allow it, because they know best of course.
And the enormous quantity of salt that goes into the process (275 lbs of salt for 880 lbs of pork fat from the pig's back) doesn’t change the flavor at all. It’s perhaps not widely known that while salt will leach into protein and make it salty, as it does for prosciutto for example, it does not make the taste of lardo salty. Instead it serves to gradually reduce the moisture content and matures the lardo slowly and safely.
Our driver Davide from the Carrara Marble Tour advised us to stop at Bruna Guardagni’s Larderia La Stazione to buy some lardo and so we did, because we always like to follow local advice. Bruna operates out of her home just outside town by the car park where all the cavatori park their cars every morning to take the ride up the mountain to the quarries. Her place is quite small so she’s clearly one of the smaller producers in town and she let us take a peek at her inventory of maturing lardo encased in marble (above photo).
Like every producer, her exact recipe is a secret but the usual ingredients in addition to salt are rosemary, garlic and lots of black pepper and then some or all of the following: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, sage , bay leaf, oregano, thyme and probably a few other spices. All of that explains the dark brown covering in the photograph.
The salt/spice mixture and the lard are combined in 12 different layers of each and then just left alone. This is an IGT certified product which prohibits any additives or preservatives and is only prevented from being awarded the higher DOP qualification by the fact that the pigs themselves are no longer local but come from either Parma or Mantova.
As we were chatting with Bruna the sun made a brief appearance and for a few minutes it was warm. We commented that for an early February day it seemed quite pleasant and she replied that she had grown to hate the constant dampness of the long winters here. She acknowledged that the humidity is perfect for the lardo but it no longer suited her and she pointed to the rock wall inside her house that the house was in fact constructed around, and spoke about the constant moisture that it brings into the home. We nodded in agreement, we certainly couldn’t live there, not our type of climate at all.
And as we were leaving we noticed that hiding in the bushes of her small garden was the perfect symbol of Colonnata, a large marble pig.