Advanced apologies to my vegetarian friends
Montepulciano is a Tuscan Hill Town. For many, it is the quintessential hill town - medieval walls, cathedral with an unfinished facade, lovely winding streets, unexpected vistas, lots of knick knack shops.
For us, it was the closest hill town to our agriturismo, and our hosts also run the Tabacchi shop on the cathedral square. They suggested we give the town a whirl, so we did.
We started with lunch - and oh, what a lunch.
Just behind the cathedral is Osteria del Conte - a smallish place with about 8 outdoor tables (in addition to the 12-table indoor dining room). There was no "regular" menu - only a sheet of "today's specials." This is usually a VERY good sign - meaning they're cooking fresh, from what is in season.
It was a warm day - but a breeze had mounted the hilltop and made us glad we'd worn our sweaters. Perfect outdoor dining weather.
It didn't take long to make our choices from the short menu. We ordered secondi (meat dishes) and contorni (veggie sides), to be accompanied by the famous Vino Nobile de Montepulciano.
The wine came first - a modest drink - a decent table wine, but not what we were expecting from all the pomp.
Then came the food.
Mary had grilled steak cooked with rosemary and garlic.
I ordered grilled pork shoulder with lardo.
We shared garbanzos with onions and olive oil, and grilled mixed veggies.
Sounds simple - was delectable.
Everything was perfectly cooked.
The steak was medium rare and tender. The rosemary and garlic infused the meat with flavor and the grilled edges had just a slight reminiscence of crispness from the char.
The garbanzos were tender and had good texture, with no taste of having been canned. The olive oil was almost buttery against the onion.
The grilled veggies were tender and tasty (cooked on a grill! - with olive oil! - You know what I mean - best way to cook most veggies).
And -- the pork was absolutely amazing. Tender meat, cooked just short of well, lightly crunchy edges from the grill, wrapped in lardo, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with green peppercorns.
I kept the pork til last - because, well - I just need to take a moment.
Now, before I go on, did you get a good look at it?
I grew up in rural North Carolina - and the pig was a central part of our eating. We were doing whole pig eating long before it was fashionable -- when it was just what you did because you lived in the country and had relatives who killed hogs in October, and none of us were rich enough to think we could waste anything - plus it was good! (well, some parts are an acquired taste - I still can't eat brains and eggs.)
Now I live in Northern California - a place whose people like to consider themselves on the front line of eating well, eating naturally, and eating sustainably. In the last couple of years, there has been all kinds of talk in California foodie circles about "lardo" (as part of the whole pig eating craze). It's described in the recipes and newspaper articles as rendered pig fat (we called that "lard" when I was growing up) that has been allowed to cure further.
Quite frankly, I never could picture it. Lard makes sense as the fat for biscuits (the BEST!), but I couldn't imagine eating lard for its own sake - and I hadn't been served it -- until now.
The lardo that was wrapped around my pieces of grilled pork was not rendered fat, by any means. To the best of my discernment, it was paper thin slices of what we, in Johnston and Wilson counties, called "fatback." The fatback on my pork in Montepulciano didn't seem to have been cooked on its own, but draped around the pork and just melted / melded to the hot meat. It still had a good bit of body and texture of its own. I needed to cut through it, just like the meat.
It was absolutely delicious.
I didn't like fatback as a kid (except when it was fried up into crunchy strips - yes, fried fat), and it wasn't a part of my heritage I've carried with me.
Now, I'm reconsidering.
[ I've done a google search on lardo - and several say that the fatback for lardo is cured - with herbs and spices, by drilling holes into the fat and stuffing the herbs in - point being to make the fat last longer. I'm guessing there might be a lot of variation on what gets interpreted as lardo. There were no holes or herbed bits in mine - so I'm just sticking with my fatback association - to be scientifically tested later.]
Listen to me, people - this is good stuff! I was blown away by how much it added to the grilled pork (which, you've got to admit, is pretty much at the top of the field of cooked meat products anyway).
Of course, there may have been some environmental help -- I was in Italy, on top of a small mountain in a medieval old town, eating outdoors on a warm, sunny day, sharing the meal with the love of my heart. I'll admit all that likely had some bearing. And the fresh olive oil, rosemary, and lovely green peppercorns didn't hurt a bit.
But I also felt an unexpected sense of homecoming. Pork wrapped in its own fat. Fatback is back!
I will be experimenting with lardo on my own. I know the soul food butchers of Oakland can hook me up.
In the meantime - the last bite …