Monday, January 13, 2014

Creamy, delicious, silky smooth...fat?

Lardo, in all of it's fatty glory
Let's talk lardo.

There are few things in this world more decadent then eating thinly sliced, white ribbons of cured fatback on a piece of warm bread.  The fat melts slowly over the bread, turning into glossy, opaque slivers of deliciousness that have notes of rosemary, herbs and sometimes cinnamon.  A foodie dream or a cardiologist nightmare?  You can argue both sides, but a recent trip to the ancient mountain village of Colonnata, the home of the most famous lardo in Italy, lardo di Colonnata, meant that lardo would be consumed in large amounts.

Lardo is one of the most unique Tuscan salumi that I've encountered.  A few years ago when studying abroad here, I remember looking at the slices of lardo atop the salt less bread typical here in Tuscany with a raised eyebrow.  Already counting the kilos I had been packing on studying food in Tuscany, I was more then a little dubious, but the food student in me couldn't resist the IGP protected product with a history that goes back for centuries.

After my first bite, I was hooked.  It quite literally melts in your mouth, covering your tongue with smooth fat and spices.  Lardo is made of cured pork fatback, using salt, herbs, including rosemary, and spices, like cinnamon.   In little Colonnata, the winding streets that run alongside the sharp white marble mountains of Carrara are filled with one larderia, where you cure and sell the famous star of Colonnata, after another.

one larderia of many

Where the magic happens

We sat down to a lunch of mixed antipasti, which obviously included lardo, and then a grilled steak covered in the silky white slices of fat melting over the meat.  It was decadent and delicious, and I couldn't help but think about all of the people in the world on a diet after the New Year.

Ready to bring home!
Fortunately, Colonnata has a lovely little piazza and some tiny alleys to wander down as you attempt to burn off all of the lardo consumed.  Making left turns and right turns absentmindedly, we ran into an older gentleman in front of his larderia who offered to bring us into his little production facility and show us how it is done.  Being next to mountains made of marble, it isn't surprising that the village seems to be made of the stone, and that lardo di Colonnata needs to be preserved in huge, white marble vats, that keep it's moisture and humidity at a specific level that give it it's unique taste and texture.  He explained to us that spices ranging from coriander to cloves are used, and that the lardo has to have a certain percentage of cholesterol not higher then that of other white meats.  I'm dubious on this last totally unsupported fact, but it did make me feel a little better after lunch.  And looking at all these happy elderly people in the center of the lardo universe made me feel even better as no one around me seemed to be keeling over due to eating too much lardo.

Everything is made of marble!
Aside from cured pork fat consumption, Colonnata is a really charming small village.  Much like arriving in the Cinque Terre, the road driving up the mountain is a bit of an adventure as you wind up and down a one lane road littered with marble dust and large chunks acting like road barriers on the side.  In the spring and summer, tours can be arraigned to visit the marble caves that have been supplying the precious material to the world from ancient Roman times.  Nestled in the Apuan Alps, looking down over the marble sea of mountains, it definitely worth a trip - but come with an empty stomach.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Back to the mountains AKA conquering your fears AKA Happy New Year!

There was nothing really exciting going on here in the Cinque Terre for New Year's Eve, and when a cousin of Manuel and her boyfriend generously invited us up to the mountains to celebrate with them in his beautiful little home in the snow, I happily agreed.  I wasn't even thinking twice about returning to the village where, less then a year ago, I left in an ambulance with a fractured spine which left me completely immobile for weeks, and in a brace for months.  It never even crossed my mind, until we started sharing our New Year's Eve plans with everyone, and I started registering the incredulous looks.  Then I started to get a little nervous.  My wonderful doctor told me that, unfortunately, in these kind of injuries, it becomes much easier to re-fracture a bone that has already been broken.  Another fall, even a little one, could leave me in worse shape then before.  When people started asking me if I was sure I really wanted to return to where I fell, I wasn't even thinking about not going.  It's not Moena's fault, or even then snowboard's.  It was just a freak, weird fall that could have happened getting out of the subway in New York on an icy day.  You get over it.

In addition, there was one big factor at play.  I love Trentino.  I really do.

Apple juice and beer at the Cima Uomo peak at San Pellegrino
The village of Moena
Trentino-Alto Adige is the last region of Italy in the north before you hit Austria, and in some places, it's a little controversial still.  It was part of Austria until 1919, and granted autonomy by Italy in 1948.  One of the reasons autonomy is given is to preserve the unique cultural heritage of these regions, Trentino being a great example of one.  In many parts of the region, German is the native language spoken, and street signs are written in both German and Italian.  Other languages include Ladin, which is not a dialect but a completely different language that over 75% of the town we stayed in, Moena, claims as their mother tongue.  It's incredibly fascinating being in an area that is so full of history and culture, and another reminder of the fact that Italy, as a unified country, is pretty young.  The differences from region to region are astounding, as Trentino is arguably one of the most dramatic examples of a region full of it's own character and happily holding on to it's culture.  I love the accents of the people here.  I love the food, and think it's funny that the New York-German-Jewish-Deli food that I miss so much I can almost find here.  Goulash is one of my favorites, and in Canederli (minus the pork) I see a little bit of Matzah ball soup.  I love the stands of apple vendors on the street.  I love hot mulled wine, smoked speck, and even the really stinky cheese aptly named puzzone, which means, as you can guess "really smelly".  The scenery is, quite literally, breathtaking.  For example, at the San Pellegrino pass, we were over 2000 meters above sea level.  You are on top of the world, looking down at glittering snow.  It's a sunny, white, sparkling dream - though I do wish it was closer.  It's a solid 6 hours in the car from Monterosso.
On the way to Passo Rolle

New Year's Eve was great, as I was able to return to an area of Italy that I enjoy, and show everyone that you can't be scared of freak accidents.  And, most importantly, I rang in 2014 with a close group of friends in a beautiful winter wonderland.

Happy New Year e Buon Anno a tutti!