Ok, maybe lardo isn’t the first thing you think of eating when its 30 degrees outside. But here I am, in Colonnata, on a boiling Summer afternoon, with a massive roll in my hand, stuffed with lardo. And I can tell you, it tastes like a very good idea indeed.
Driving up to Colonnata is an experience in itself. This is a part of Tuscany that most of the locals don’t know very well. Places where the intrepid travellers venture for the famous marble caves and the Tuscan super-delicacy that is the lardo di Colonnata (cured pig fat). The narrow road that weaves up from Carrara into the Apuan Alps offers visitors striking sights of the marble caves, glittering in the sun. So much so that at first glance they look like snow.
The white marble mountain Apuan Alps
We are, surprisingly, a few kilometres from the Versilia coast, in northern Tuscany. Leaving behind the glamour and the sun worshippers that inhabit Versilia’s beaches, I want to explore these mountains that have been described quite poetically by a geographer as “a thunderous sea that seems to have been petrified in an instant”.
Going up the Apuan Alps is like entering a parallel world. You can smell the cut marble, breathe it in. It leaves a fine white sand in the air, and on the side of the roads. But what looks decorative to visitors, also has a dramatic side. The people who live here know too well how hard and dangerous the cavatore (quarryman) work on these mountains can be.
The town of Colonnata
At 550 metres above sea level, Colonnata is a tiny town nestled in the Apuan Alps, with a handful of narrow streets and a small square paved with white marble. Here a monument of the “Christ of the quarrymen” stands as a memorial to all the lives that have been lost in the caves. With his face looking upwards he seems to be gazing at the mountain top. Inside, the small San Bartolomeo Church is cool and, not surprisingly, glitters with marble.
The stone houses, the ancient bell tower and the backdrop of marble that resembles snow gives a very special atmosphere to this place. You can really get a sense of history here. The caves that surround the town have been excavated for centuries. The first were the Romans, who needed marble for their houses and temples, and founded Colonnata in 40 BC to host a slave-labour colony.
The marble has truly shaped this territory. Artisans and artists like Michelangelo have come here in search of the perfect block of marble. If you think that the marble used for the Statue of David comes from here, you realise this is a very special place indeed.
Today the few people (around 200) that inhabit the town are still dedicated to the two main activities that make Colonnata a unique and quirky place: working with marble and producing lardo. If marble was the source of wealth, lardo was the main food and a source of nutrition for the quarrymen. A rich, healthy food that helped to keep them going. And one the locals are very proud of indeed.
Discover more charming small towns to visit in Tuscany.
If you’re planning a trip to Colonnata, you might want to visit Pietrasanta as well, a charming small town devoted to the art of sculpture. It’s half an hour drive from Colonnata, on the way to the Versilia coast.
Lardo – the mouth-watering taste of Colonnata
There are lots of little places to grab a snack in Colonnata, and a few restaurants too. But I spot the “panino con lardo” (literally a lardo sandwich) on a menu and opt for that. Sitting at an outdoor table at the Larderia Mafalda in the main square, my order is taken by a very kind and chatty lady who explains that they are the oldest producer in town.
“Lardo is made by squeezing the pork back fat into a marble basin. It gets seasoned with sea salt, pepper and various herbs and left to be cured for at least 6 months. It’s the nature of the stone and the climate up here in Colonnata that make it so special. The quarrymen were blessed with incredible health thanks to our lardo”
The lardo is cut into very thin slices, that are almost translucent. The salt has been cleaned away, and the taste is delicate, and ever so slightly sweet. It literally melts in your mouth. After the sandwich, I spot another thing on the menu that I can’t resist. “Crostini with lardo and honey”. Really? That’s a thing? I have to try it.
“When we say “organic” here we mean it. No additives, no preservatives. It’s all natural, pure”, says the lady, “It’s not even bad for your cholesterol levels”. Personally I doubt that, but the taste is too good and she’s far too nice to argue with.
Lost in translation: Is lardo the same as lard?
No. Lardo is cured pig fat. The right translation for ‘lard’ (the fat used for cooking) in Italian is ‘strutto’.
Visit the marble quarries in Tuscany
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, Colonnata is a perfect base from which to visit one of the marble quarries in Tuscany. There are organised tours or you can drive up yourself, on very narrow winding roads, and through dark galleries inside the mountain bellies, to truly experience the unique landscape of the Apuan Alps. There’s a fascinating Cava Museum Fantiscritti to learn about the quarries and the work of the quarrymen.
Along the road, and in Colonnata, you’ll find plenty of shops that sell marble souvenirs, from small objects to vases. There are even basins in which to make lardo, in case you really can’t get enough of it.