The long summer is over in Milan and the mercury is falling fast, so fast in fact that my jacket has migrated from the armoire to the coat hooks by the front door. Having grown up in southern California, where coat hooks are used to hang baseball caps and maybe a light sweatshirt, this is a moment I begin to dread as the summer winds down in northern Italy.
Before the summer is but a vague memory, and those coat hooks get strained by progressively heavier jackets, I’m wanted to pay homage to the Festa del Lardo, which has been held every year in the town of Arnad since the late 1960s. I love Italy’s local town festivals, sagra in Italian, which are usually based around a local food product, so I’d had my eyes on Arnad’s fete for ages. And yet though Arnad is less than two hours from Milan by car in the Valle d’Aosta region, I had never managed to find myself at the right time in this corner of Europe where Italy, France and Switzerland touch briefly. That is until this year in late August.
This sagra is dedicated to what in English we would translate as lard, though that is kind of like calling the Vatican a country, technically correct, but reductive to the point of distortion. Lardo is indeed a fatty cut of pork, think 95 percent white fat with a tiny strip of meat, but it has nothing to do with the spreadable lard used in some north American kitchens in lieu of oil. This is the good stuff, cured as if it were prosciutto di Parma.
While the lardo in its purest form is eaten thinly sliced on a piece of bread or maybe wrapped around a thin, crispy bread stick, there are actually myriad ways to eat the stuff. My favorite is either wrapped around a cooked chestnut or on a piece of hearty bread and topped with honey and a chestnut. They also squeeze it into pasta dishes, gnocchi and so-on.
Strip out the lard angle and this is a sagra like the many hundreds of others across Italy in the spring, late summer and autumn: long lines to buy food, long wooden tables where you bring your tray and find a spot to eat, cheap wine, cheaper beer, a local band playing traditional music… In short, to be sought out and enjoyed as often as possible.