A slave to good taste

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I’m not easily shocked. But today I was – when I read that Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, has admitted that everyday, every single day, it throws away 66% of its salads and 48% of it’s bread. I’m pretty sure Tesco is not unique in this respect – all supermarkets do it, restaurants do it and certainly people do it at home. And it’ s not limited to the rich world where there’s supposed to be enough to go around and one can `afford’ to be wasteful. In developing countries like India 30-50% of fresh produce and foodgrains go to waste because of the lack of infrastructure – roads, cold chain transportation, warehousing facilities. It’s a crime. Against humanity.

It was not always like this. Long ago (and not so long ago in some parts of the world), humans were close to the source of their food – growing it, killing it or buying it from close by. Food was grown, traded and eaten (perforce) according to climate, geography, trade, society and history. In a good year, each of these elements worked in beautiful harmony to provide people with sustenance. In a bad year…well, things could get really bad.

One superb example of this harmony at work is a very interesting food product – Lardo di Colonnata. Translated from Italian – Lard from Colonnata. Si – you read right – lard. Also known as pork fat. I can almost see some of you grimacing – lard?!!  Yuck!!  I know – that’s a typical reaction.  But we’ll get to the taste…first, there’s a story to be told.

Colonnata is a very small village high in the Tuscan hills in Italy. It lies within the Carrara area which is best known for its marble. It is a well documented fact that Michaelangelo sourced most of his marble for  his exquisite sculptures from around here.  In fact the town’s piazza or main (and only) square, the one in the pic below, is actually fully paved in marble! In most parts of the world, Carrara marble flooring  is synonymous with luxury….

It was pouring cats and dogs the day we visited Colonnata...we were literally the only people there...and a cafe owner wanted to know how we had gotten there because the town had been cut off from the outside world for 5 days because of landslides

It was pouring cats and dogs the day we visited Colonnata…we were literally the only visitors there…the owner of the trattoria where we ate lunch wanted to know how we had gotten there because the town had been cut off from the outside world for the last 5 days because of landslides

The hillsides of Colonnata are very rocky, the soil is poor and not much grows there except for chestnut trees. Because of this, the land cannot feed cows or goats. Pigs love chestnuts however, and can live on them.

So where is this leading? Well the ancient Romans were interested in Colonnata only for its marble – all of which went into constructing their beautiful villas and sculptures.  And guess who mined the marble? Slaves – of course. It was brutal and harsh work and slaves lived short and nasty lives. But of course they had to be kept alive so they could work, right? And voila! That’s where lardo comes in.

The land grows only chestnuts. Pigs eat the chestnuts, The delicious meat of the pigs goes to the masters and the slaves are left with the fat. So what do they do? They get  inventive. Huge vats are carved out of marble, and are filled with brine. Into it are added garlic, rosemary and salt. And in go blocks of pig fat. Steeped in that mixture, left in a cool and dark cave, reacting with the calcium carbonate of the vat, the fat is cured and flavoured slowly and emerges a couple of months later as a delicious slab of Lardo. It’s perfect for the era and the situation – cheap to produce, never spoils, eaten with simple bread, and is high in calories – just the kind of food you need to work long unpaid hours in underground caves, hacking at and hauling stone. To see how it typically  looks in situ, before it reaches the table, click here

A close up look - wafer-thin slices of Lardo do Colonnata

A close up look – wafer-thin slices of Lardo do Colonnata

Typically, lardo is served in the simplest way possible – with bread and wine. Usually as a starter or as part of an antipasti platter with other cold cuts of meat. I’ve heard it is also a very swish pizza topping in some restaurants in the US and London, but I haven’t been to one of those yet.

And the taste? I have to say the only barrier is in the mind. Not like what you’d expect fat, pork fat to be. It’s refined, not raw. Silky, not unctuous. Fragrant, not bland.  Musky and intense, almost melting on the tongue. Like the best butter you never had. It’s a treat, and a very satisfying one at that. Twice or thrice a year for me, tops. Beautiful.

How does slave food become gourmet?

Bet the slaves never had it so good…

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3 responses »

  1. Try it on “gnocco fritto” (fried dough parcels?) served hot, Lardo di Colonnata simply mets and it tastes amazing. When the gnocco fritto cools down you can eat it with prosciutto crudo, salame, coppa, pancetta… and a glass of good red wine.
    Baci

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