When you bring to mind the cuisine of Italy, what fat do you think of? Olive oil, right?! I’m not surprised. “Everyone knows” it’s the fat Italians have been using since the beginning of time and that it is a foundation of their healthy Mediterranean lifestyle. The revered image of the Italian nonna (grandmother) with her beloved olive oil is indelibly carved on the collective narrative of Italy’s culinary landscape.
If, however, you dig a little deeper into this modern story, you find some different and surprising truths about the fats Italians have used throughout history. You find that the unquestionable bond between Italians and olive oil is at best a misrepresentation, and at worst a fiction created solely to serve a market.
After we chart the history of fat usage across the Italian pennisula, you’ll see olive oil through new eyes.
ANCIENT ROME: TOWN VERSUS COUNTRY
First, let’s head back to ancient Rome. The surviving Roman cookbooks, which were written by and for the elite, make frequent reference to olive oil. And indeed, olive oil was the fat of choice for the estimated 15 to 20 percent of the Roman population that lived in cities and towns.1
These cities and towns were a jaw-dropping miracle of logistics, one which would not be repeated in Europe until the turn of the nineteenth century. It’s this logistical marvel that allowed olive oil to be so wisespread. The oil became a commodity, with a lot of it being shipped in from abroad. There was even a dealer’s exchange (the arca olearia) and a profession associated with the oil’s procurement and distribution.
But such logistical miracles did not reach the estimated 80 to 85 percent of the population that lived outside of Roman cities and towns, working the land to survive. Pigs, easily bred and rapidly proliferating, had been domesticated since around 8500 BC and were vital to rural households. The fat they produced was essential to sustaining the population.
If literature is any indication, it seems the country-dwellers were well known for favoring lard. The famous Roman poet Horace parodied Aesop’s fable, “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” in his sixth book of collected poetry, Sermones, saying: “The countryside is a place where. . . one eats fava beans and vegetables dressed in lardo” [cured back fat from pigs].
In addition to this use of lard by the majority of the population, we also know that pork fat (as well as army biscuit, called buccellatum) was given to Roman legionaries as part of their rations. An edict from the Emperor Constantius (in the year 360) explained the soldier’s rations: “Our troops are used to receive also lardo. . . and mutton: two days buccellatum and the third day bread; one day wine and the second day vinegar; one day lardo, two days mutton.”2
THE FOOD LANDSCAPE AFTER THE EMPIRE’S COLLAPSE
Upon the fall of the Roman Empire, the intricate logistical networks that maintained its towns and cities disappeared. Germanic peoples, who lived in the forest and raised pigs, swept through the peninsula. Their way of living altered the overall food landscape dramatically, and pig fat began its undisputed long reign as king of fats throughout Italy.
Contrary to modern popular imagination, until the industrialization of the 1950s and 1960s, olive oil was a niche product. Olives were grown in restricted areas like Liguria and the southern central part of the country, and the oil produced from them was very expensive. The majority of the population neither had groves of olive trees nor the ability (or desire) to pay for the oil. A woman named Veronica, born in 1928 on the border of Tuscany and Umbria, stated in the 2015 oral history Chewing the Fat, “Back then, folks who didn’t make their own olive oil didn’t hardly know what it was. Everybody used lard.”3
As a famous Calabrian quote conjures, pigs were akin to modern-day insurance: “Those who marry are only happy for a day, but those who slaughter their pig are happy for an entire year.” In other words, if you had a pig and it produced a bounty, you were safe for the year. Said a woman named Concetta, born in 1923 in Basilicata (a mountainous region in southern Italy), “Lard was very important. When you split open your pig, the first thing you looked at was how much fat was on it.”3
THE LARD RECIPE TREASURY
Let’s consider some Italian culinary favorites and see how pig fat is a regular fixture in the recipes. For example, the ragu and other tomato-based sauces for which southern Italy is famous were traditionally made with pig fat (except in the limited areas where olives were grown). The glorious array of Italian salumi (cured meats) also utilizes ample pig fat.
For many, bread—not pasta—was a daily staple, and lard-enriched doughs were (and still are) common. One example is pizza deep-fried in rendered pig fat, as made famous by Sophia Loren in the 1954 film D’Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples). Lard was also a feature of the Tuscan flatbread schiacciata, while the version called pane con ciccioli incorporated the cracklings left over after rendering lard. Traditional breadsticks in the Piedmont and Naples both included lard.
No less than Rome’s leading tourism website points out, “Until just a few decades ago, lard was one of the key ingredients of authentic Roman-style cooking.”4 Yet contemporary Italian recipe books wholly ignore lard; no wonder the modern world believes something that is far from the truth! Sardinian food researcher Clifford Wright says, “Don’t let the abundant use of olive oil in contemporary Sicilian recipes fool you into thinking that olive oil was always abundant in Sicily. When olive oil, with its modest production, was used, it was used on bread or for seasoning dried vegetable soups.”5
BUTTER AND NUT OILS
From the Middle Ages until very recently, the Catholic Church’s calendar prescribed “lean days”—periods of fasting that demanded abstinence from animal flesh.
Evidence about how people adapted to these restrictions shows us even more clearly how specialized the use of olive oil was; in fasting times, it was not the automatic alternative to lard. Outside of its growing regions, “it was expensive and not widely available,”6 so other oils, often made from walnuts, were regularly used instead. In other Italian geographies, butter became more popular and was employed as the go-to replacement fat.
MYTHS ABOUT OLIVE OIL
WHERE DID THE OLIVE OIL MYTH COME FROM?
From the 1950s onwards, industrialization meant vast droves of Italians moved from country to city. These new urban workers, earning cash, were eager to leave behind their pig-rearing past for a “better life.” At the same time, scientific advances and their application to the “problem” of cholesterol led to the adoption of Ancel Keys’ work by the American Heart Association—and by the world. Italians were told that saturated fat caused heart disease. Olive oil, with industrial production engineered by economic investors, was sold to them as the “healthy” alternative. Abandoning the daily use of lard, Italians began to swap in olive oil.
Whether in Italy or elsewhere, the post- WWII food world we inhabit today runs on very different rails to that of the majority of humanity’s history. Those who hold power have something to sell, and they must create stories to sell their products. Thus, with further advances in lipid testing and the growth of both tourism and the mass media, the phenomenon that is the Mediterranean Diet began its reign. Olive oil, bound up in the diet’s mythology, was sold as the “cornerstone” of the Italians’ healthy longevity.
The story that Italians have “always” used olive oil is very appealing. Not only does it tick the Mediterranean Diet “health” box, but it also plays heavily on the collective yearning for the “timeless” southern Italian way of life. Yet, as we have seen, aside from the inhabitants of civilized Rome and the post-1950s Italians living in an agribusiness food culture, lard has been Italy’s historical fat of choice. It has, throughout history, been the primary fat used by the majority of the Italian peninsula’s population.
The tales that we’ve all been told bear very little relation to the truth of the country’s alimentary history. Despite this, the spinners of the olive oil and fat narrative have completely transformed the Italian population’s eating habits and carved a swath through the global popular imagination, so that we cannot even think of Italian cuisine without picturing that bottle of olive oil on the table.
COOKING IN THEIR SHOES
I have made Italy my home and in my own kitchen, I feel proud to be using the fat that the majority of Italians historically would have used every day. I buy back fat from a local farmer here in Tuscany and render lard myself. I use it for spreading on bread, melting over vegetables, daily cooking and as a base for sauces.
Yes, I also have a bottle of olive oil in my cupboard, but I am under no illusions. I know that the kitchens, food and stomachs of those who walked this land before me were not filled with olive oil—as the media would have us believe—but, in fact, with lard.
This recipe is adapted from “Military Tomato Sauce” in Chewing the Fat.3 Traditionally, it would have been sprinkled with a grated hard cheese such as Parmesan or Pecorino.
- 75g (3 ounces) lardo (cured back fat) or, if not available, fresh back fat (if using fresh fat, add a generous pinch of salt to the final sauce)
- 100g (1 cup) onions
- 75g (3 ounces) tomato concentrate (i.e. tomato paste)
- 200ml (3/4 cup) water
- Optional: salt (with fresh back fat), garlic, rosemary, basil or other herbs
- Chop the back fat and onions into a small dice and pound together for several minutes in a mortar and pestle to soften.
- Fry on medium heat, stirring often, until the fat is golden and the onions are starting to brown.
- Stir the tomato concentrate into the water and add to the fat/onion mixture. Add the optional garlic and herbs. Allow to boil gently for 20 minutes, stirring every now and then.
- Stir in the pepper and (if you are using it) salt.
- Mix into or top your dish with the sauce. Serves four.
PANE CON CICCIOLI
Here is a fun sourdough interpretation of the traditional “bread with cracklings” using spelt flour. Full instructions and accompanying videos and photos for this loaf are available at ancestralkitchen.com/paneconciccioli.
- 135g (1 cup) whole-grain spelt flour
- 135g (1 cup) white spelt flour
- 54g (1/3 cup) ripe sourdough starter
- 5g (1/2 tablespoon) salt
- 3 tablespoons lard (plus extra, melted, for glazing, if desired)
- 110g (4 ounces) water (adjust this based on the needs of your flour)
- 140g (5 oz.) cracklings from rendering lard
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Generous handful of fresh rosemary
- Generous grinding of salt and fresh pepper
- Mix the salt and two spelt flours together in a bowl. Dot the lard onto the top of the mixture.
- Stir the sourdough starter into the water and then pour onto the flour/salt/lard mixture.
- Work all of the ingredients with your hands to create a smooth dough, ensuring lard is well distributed.
- Leave this for a bulk fermentation stage. At 22C/72F, this is usually about five hours, performing a stretch-and-fold every hour. You can cut this short and refrigerate the dough overnight to work on in the morning.
- On a well-floured board, roll out the dough into a large oval.
- Dot the ciccioli (lard cracklings), garlic and rosemary over the dough, leaving a border of an inch or so clear around the edges.
- Fold in the long edges of the dough (to stop the filling from falling out) and then roll it up from the shorter end (like a strudel), leaving the seal at the bottom.
- Leave to proof, putting inside lidded (or covered) one-pound loaf tin and leaving at 22C/72F for an hour or two.
- Preheat oven to 230C/445F. Slash the top of the loaf and glaze the loaf with some gently melted lard, if desired.
- Bake at 230C/445F for 15 minutes; then lower heat to 190C/375F and bake for 35 minutes with the lid on, then for a further 10 minutes with the lid off. Cool slightly and enjoy!
- Lo Cascio E. The population of Roman Italy in town and country. Pp. 161-172 in Reconstructing Past Population Trends in Mediterranean Europe (3000 BC – AD 1800), Vol. 1, J Bintlijf and K Sbonias (Eds.). Oxbow Books; 1999. https://www.lettere.uniroma1.it/sites/default/files/457/Lo%20Cascio%2C%20Population%20of%20Roman%20Italy%20in%20Town%20and%20Country%20%281999%29.pdf
- The diet of the legionaries: buccellatum, lardum, and posca. Historical Italian Cooking, n.d. https://historicalitaliancooking.home.blog/english/recipes/the-diet-of-the-legionaries-buccellatum-lardum-and-posca/
- Moyer-Nocchi K. Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita. Pavia: Medea; 2015.
- “Condimenti” and Roman cuisine: lard, bacon-fat, pork cheek and olive oil. Turismo Roma, n.d. https://www.turismoroma.it/en/14102013-i-condimenti-della-cucina-romana-lo-strutto-il-lardo-il-guanciale-e-lolio-doliva
- Wright C. The medieval beginnings of Sicilian cuisine. CliffordAWright.com, n.d. http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/topic_id/13/id/35/
- Montanari M. Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking and the Table. Columbia University Press; 2015.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2022🖨️ Print post