Carrara is coveted by cooks. Kitchen tools made of Carrara are as functional as they are beautiful. My custom Carrara pastry board is one of my prized possessions. So, during the planning of our 2014 Italy trip when I realized that the road from Tuscany to Liguria passed through Carrara, I knew we would be making a pit stop. I had to see the source of the white marble. There wouldn’t be time for a guided quarry visit, but we could fit a car tour into our schedule.
The loop we drove was dotted with shops selling all manner of marble souvenirs to busloads of tourists, but it seemed mostly like a working area. All around us enormous tractor-trailer-size blocks of marble were being noisily extracted from the mountain and trucked down to the workshops in town. There were several earth-shaking blasts from the mines in the distance, each explosion punctuated by the clatter of falling rocks. We quickly learned that it was best to stay out of the way of the earth-moving machinery on the narrow mountain road. Perhaps the people on the buses knew something we didn’t—it seemed like we were the only tourists brave (or stupid) enough to dare to drive our rental car in the midst of all of the heavy equipment.
The shops offered everything from chachkies to two-story-tall statues of Jesus. We saw Carrara vases and bowls, platters and pedestals. Shelves of white marble rolling pins and meat pounders, cheese knives and wine corks. There were mortars of every size and shape. Unfortunately the one I wanted for making pesto was too heavy to put into my suitcase. A small serving board made me part with my money. And every shop had these curious marble boxes…
In a tiny little hamlet called Colonnata in the marble mountains above Carrara, they make lardo. The guidebook mentioned that it was the best lardo in the world. We figured that if we had come this far, we might as well drive all the way up to Colonnata to see what all the fuss was about.
We ventured into the first deli we came upon, unsure of how to order.
The shopkeeper seemed to understand despite our hesitation and the language barrier. She pushed a couple of samples across the counter.
The paper-thin slices of silky pork fat were indulgently melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and we agreed to her offer of lardo and tomato sandwiches for lunch.
Moments later we were served this feast.
It turns out that the marble boxes or basins, known as concas in Italian, are used for curing the lardo. Concas can be small like the size of a box of tissues or large like a bed of a pickup. Pork fatback is packed into the concas along with coarse salt and herbs and spices and left to cure for six months.
The lardo is only made during the cooler months of the year. Lardo di Colonnata is an IGP product and the process is strictly regulated.
Upon returning home from Italy, I couldn’t stop thinking about the concas full of lardo and I became determined to recreate the flavor we experienced in Colonnata. I researched the ingredients and process extensively, bribing an Italian friend to translate what seemed to be the most informational video about the process in exchange for homemade gelato and subjecting my charcutier brother to an endless barrage of questions. Eventually I came up with a subtly flavored formula I’m quite proud of.
In Colonnata, fatback is cured with abundant salt in what is known as the “salt box method”. The use of preservatives such as sodium nitrate is not permitted. The salt box method requires fatback of a consistent thickness and skill judging doneness.
But the equilibrium method of curing ensures more consistent results, especially for the home cook. The equilibrium method also allows for the use of cure #2, which results in whiter lardo with a slightly more cured flavor and longer shelf life.
My brother and I suspect that the six-month cure used in Colonnata probably has more to do with the flavoring than the salting. The long curing time probably allows the herbs and spices to marry and mellow. We suspect that they do not cure during the summer months because of the heat and the seasonality of hog production.
For lovely, sweet lardo, use the best fresh pork fatback you can source. It’s not worth making with commodity pork. You’ll need an accurate gram scale for this recipe.
Lardo in the Style of Colonnata
5% kosher salt
0.25% cure #2, optional
1% black pepper
0.4% minced garlic
0.2% rosemary needles
0.03% ground star anise
100% skinned fatback
Blend together the salt, cure #2, if desired, and flavorings. Rub the salt mixture all over the fatback. Only a portion of the salt mixture will adhere. Transfer to a vacuum sealer bag, spreading the loose salt mixture as evenly as possible over the fatback, and vacuum seal. Refrigerate, top with a weight if a uniform shape is desired, and let cure for 3 weeks (or longer if it’s convenient—lardo can be left in the bag with the cure for weeks or months without compromise or change). Rinse the lardo, pat dry with paper towels, and dry on a rack in the refrigerator overnight.
For use, slice the lardo as needed and keep vacuum sealed in a clean vacuum sealer bag in the refrigerator. Lardo stored in this manner will keep for many months. Light can cause lardo to turn yellow and rancid, but that shouldn’t be an issue since it’s dark in the refrigerator when the door’s shut. Cut the lardo into paper-thin slices and serve on slabs of rustic bread or as a part of a salumi platter. Wrap slices around asparagus spears, shrimp, or sea scallops for the grill. Drape slices over pizza fresh out of the oven. Dice small and use instead of pancetta or bacon in tomato-based pasta sauces and ragus. Render and use for fried potatoes. If you have homemade lardo in your refrigerator, doubtless you’ll think of a myriad of ways to use it.