02 December 2009

AUNTIE PASTA: Me and Waverly Root

COLONNATA, Italy - “After the richness of the food in the region of Lucca and the north central Garfagnana,” wrote food guru Waverly Root in his food bible, The Food of Italy, “Massa-Carrara is a sad come down. It has little history, gastronomic or otherwise, except that of marble”.

Dear Mr. Root, if you don’t mind my saying so, you were searching in the wrong direction. If you had looked up you would have seen Colonnata, a tiny borgo in the heart of Italy’s marble quarries, just seven short kilometers above the Tuscan town of Carrara. Colonnata is famous for two things: the first is marble, the creamy white marble that artists like Michaelangelo have coveted for centuries; and the second is lardo, a creamy white gastronomic treasure and darling of sophisticated culinary circles. Not lard, which is strutto in Italian, but lardo, pork back fat, seasoned with sea salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, cloves and other spices.

For the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that up to now I had successfully managed to avoid eating the stuff. I didn’t like anything about it, not the idea, or even the sound of it. So when my friends Sandy and Ray, suggested going to Colonnata for lunch, I confess my stomach lurched.

“Trust me,” said Sandy, picking up the phone to make a reservation at the Trattoria Locandapuana, “you’re going to love this place”.

Late the next morning, we leave their old farmhouse just outside of Lucca and head for Carrara and the Tuscan coast. From the highway the rugged peaks of the Apuan Alps that frame Colonnata glistened in the sunshine, large sections of their façade cut away revealing the sparkling white stone underneath. As we get closer to Carrara, tall orange cranes and other pieces of heavy equipment parked along the edges of the deep quarries come into focus.

From Carrara, it only takes another 15 minutes to drive up the winding mountain road to Colonnata, and as we walk into the small vine covered trattoria, I can feel my throat closing up. It was just about 1’o’clock, lunchtime in Italy, and the restaurant was crowded. I looked around the room. There was only one vacant table and it had our name on it.

As an appetizer Sandy ordered lardo with quince mostarda, a sweet and spicy marmalade, Ray settled on lardo with a mostarda of figs and juniper berries. There was no getting away from it. Everything on the menu, except for desert was, in some way or another, made, flavored or wrapped in lardo. With beads of sweat popping out on my forehead I ordered crostini, toasted bread rounds topped with lardo, anchovies, tomatoes and thyme, hoping the strong flavor of the anchovies and thyme would overpower the flavor of the lardo.

Ray and Sandy insist on sharing the appetizers when they arrived, and as our dishes passed around the table mine came back to me with their unwelcomed choices and one lone crostini.

With my knees pressed together in anticipation of eating something foul, I bite into the crostini. It was warm. I swallowed fast. I tasted nothing.

As I watched Sandy and Ray eating their appetizers with obvious gusto, I decided I was being ridiculous. I cut a tiny piece of one of the pale, thin lardo slices on the plate in front of me, put it on a bit of rustic bread, covered it with a dab of quince mostarda, popped it in my mouth. The lardo was not greasy or chewy as I had feared, but savory and silky and filled my mouth with a flash of rich flavor. The quince mostarda, which I also had my doubts about, added a contrasting touch of sweetness. I tried another piece of lardo, this time with a little fig and juniper berry mostarda, then another, and another, and before I knew it my plate was empty.

“There are many elements that go into creating that melt in your mouth taste, starting with the spices,” explained Dario Galimberti, who with wife Carla, run the popular trattoria.
“Every family in Colonnata, including Carla’s, has its own secret recipe for the salt and spice mix they use.”

“More than two thousand years ago, the Romans established a colony in Colonnata and the marble their slaves pulled from these mountains was used to build the Coliseum and other monumental buildings throughout the Roman Empire,” he says, “and the lardo that was produced back then nourished centurions and slaves alike.”

The curing techniques used today are pretty much the same as those used in the days of the Romans. The process starts when the fresh lardo is layered in special marble casks, called conche (con-kay), which are made at the Canaloni quarries up the road. But before the lardo is put in, the bottom and sides of the conche must be rubbed with the salt and spice mixture and a layer of spices placed on the bottom of the cask. Then a layer of lardo is added, alternating each additional layer with the salt and spices. The procedure is repeated until all the conche are filled. Finally the casks are sealed with a slab of heavy marble and placed in the cold, dark quarry caves to wait for nature to take its course. 

“The humidity in the caves, along with the sea breezes and the cool mountain air that circulates around the porous marble casks, add to the flavor of the lardo,” says Galimberti, “much the same way that a wine’s bouquet is influenced by where the grapes are grown.”

There isn’t a restaurant, bar or Mom and Pop store in Colonnata that doesn’t sell lardo, all of it “produzione proprio”, homemade. Locals from Massa-Carrara, and Italians vacationing in Forte dei Marmi, and other resorts along the Italian Riviera, make regular gastronomic pilgrimages to Colonnata. It’s a centuries old tradition.

And when the quarries are running quarry workers, covered with marble dust, come and sit on marble benches pulled up to marble tables outside of the restaurants. They sit next to suit and tie managers and marble buyers from around the world, and they are all here for the same thing: the lardo. Even Michelangelo would take the time to enjoy a meal or two of lardo when he journeyed to these marble mountains in the mid 1500’s to select the stones for his masterpieces, including the David and the Pieta’.

Certainly my next encounter with lardo will be much less traumatic, but no less enjoyable. I don’t know when that will be but, whenever it is, you can be sure I will be thinking of you, Mr. Root.
Yours truly,
Auntie Pasta

Via Comunale 1, Colonnata - Carrara
Tel/Fax: 0585 768017 Reservations necessary
Closed Sunday evenings and all day Monday
And from December 24 to February 1.

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