Eating lard may seem glutinous at first, but let me assure you that it is a special treat for any gourmand. Brillat-Savarin, author of the Phisiologie de Gout (1825), distinguished gluttons and gourmands with the rule that the latter eat with passion and that the former overindulge. Appreciating taste is also extremely important to avoid over-eating. Each bite must be savoured. Lard has a specific molecular sturucture, which gives all fats their tongue-coating quality, spreading over your tastebuds and staying there for a moment while it melts into a flavourful sauce in your mouth.
At the end of my first year at George Brown’s Culinary Management program, one of my chef instructors told me about an opportunity of a lifetime: To go work on an agriturismo in Tuscany for three months. The property was a huge hill. On the slopes leading to the main house were three fields of grape vines and a wheat field. At the top of the hill there was the restaurant, and the four-bedroom inn and the animals.
The staff was huge and some I only saw from a distance, pruning the grape vines. But I saw Guilianno every day. He was the bronzed, always shirtless, head gardener who I went to when I needed help with the animals (the loud squeal of hungry pigs is sometimes a bit intimidating). In one fenced-in area (too big to call a cage), there were guinea hen, turkeys, chickens, roosters and quail. In another there were rabbits, and in another, geese and ducks. The farthest pen from the main house, and the largest, was for the three pigs, who had aptly been named Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Of the three, two of the pigs were Cinta Sinese: Unique to the area and brought back from close extinction by breeders too passionate to see the breed disappear. These black pigs, each with a white belt (cinta means belt) around their neck, have been savoured in Tuscany since the 14th century. When the hind leg is made into fabulous prosciutto, it is proudly sold with its black hind hoof displayed. Cinta Sinese are the only native Tuscan swine breeds to survive extinction. They are cousins to the famous Spanish Black Iberian pigs and have many of the same flavour profiles. Both breeds are praised for their delicious fat, which is distinctly nutty because of their diet of predominately chestnuts and acorns. With the fresh, white, nutty fat from the pig, the staff at the farm make lardo when the pigs are slaughtered in the fall. I wasn’t around for long enough to witness the slaughter, but I was just in time to taste the lardo, which had been cured since the fall before. While I savoured the thin slice of slightly salty fat, Guilianno told me about lardo.
Lardo is known as a salumi, meaning it has been cured in salt. It can be made from any species of pig, as long as the fat is as fresh as possible. With all cured products, there is always a risk of contamination, but in Tuscany, surrounded by tradition and people who had made lardo a hundred times before, I had no worries. The original lardo is named Lardo di Colonnata. It acquired IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) status from the European Union because of the history and quality of the product.
Originally, lardo was the filling of a sandwich eaten by the quarrymen in Colonnata, high up in the Apuan Alps in Northern Tuscany. The men required the calories to climb the steep slopes and to excavate marble. To prepare lardo, a conca (marble box) is rubbed with garlic and herbs and the first piece of lardo is placed on the bottom, above a layer of salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic, rosemary and sage. The conca is then filled with alternate layers of lardo and salt mixed with herbs such as cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, clove, anise and oregano. Once the conca is full, it is covered with a marble slab and left to mature for 6 to 10 months. Lardo is traditionally made in the winter months after the pig has been slaughtered in the late fall. During this time of the year, it is cool enough to cure the fat without it going rancid.
When the wait has become unbearable and the fat has begun calling silently to be eaten, it can be enjoyed a number of ways. My favourite way is to thinly slice the lardo and eat it just like that on a small crostini.
Since returning to Toronto I have searched for lardo and found only a few places that will offer this special treat at certain times of the year. One of those places is Cowbell (Chef Marc Cutrara) located at 1564 Queen Street West, Toronto (Tel: (416) 849-1095)
Or you can order the original, IGP lardo online at: http://www.lardodicolonnata.org/ordin...
Although any curing can be dangerous, you may try to make lardo yourself, at your own discretion. You may buy pork fat (make sure it is very fresh) from most butchers.