Guest blog: on Carbonara.

My brother-in-law J2 has just returned to London for a long-ish study stint from la bellissima Roma. We met yesterday for an afternoon coffee in la charming Guildford for a chat. The main topic of discussion is obvious. He also reminded me of a piece he sent me for il mio bel blog. He is biased of course, but hey it still was nice of him to say. So this is his contribution, for which I am truly grateful.

Food. Italians can talk about passionately and heartily about it for hours on end, discussing the ins and out of it, and the best of local ingredients. So, picture the situation: sitting down at table at lake’s edge in Bracciano, some miles north of Italy, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, over a plate of Carbonara we had just cooked, and some local red wine to wash it all down. I was there with a few good friends, all from the Lazio region, and lo and behold, we had to discuss … pasta carbonara.

You see, many eateries in Rome, especially with a tourist bent, are likely to sell anything under that name. Not to say anything about what happens in other cities and countries which, to the Roman tastes, feels like complete anathema. Carbonara is, after all, a typical Roman dish … so I guess those from Rome and the region can best give advice.

I discovered that Carbonara can create a hearty debate too. Little about is not discussed. To start with its origin and its name. Apparently, it only figures in cookbooks on Roman cuisine after World War II. Maybe, the simple ingredients made it more of a country dish that came to the city in times of poverty, but one theory about its origin goes that it was an ingenious way the Roman made use of the supplies brought by the liberating American armies: bacon, and dehydrated eggs in powder. Supply these to a Roman mother, and here’s what she comes up with.

Ingredients:

  • pasta: penne or rigatoni (100g per person)
  • bacon (actually, I’d go for guanciale, if available)
  • eggs (one per person)
  • cheese (pecorino Romano)
  • ground black pepper
  • extra-virgin olive oil

The dish itself is very easy to prepare. Fry some bacon in olive oil, on low heat, being careful not to overcook (it should not be brown and crisp!). In the meantime, cook the pasta – be careful to leave it really al dente. Drain the pasta, and leaving the pan on low heat, add it to the bacon and oil, mixing the whole lot together, and allowing it to cook just slightly, for the pasta to absorb some of the taste of the bacon.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the pecorino and the pepper. Take the pan off the heat, and mix in the eggs, cheese and pepper into the pasta and bacon. Serve immediately, and be sure not to leave it to cook any further as you’ll end up with scrambled eggs on pasta.

Simple. Of course. But then, we debated almost every ingredient. To start with the bacon. Although some prefer using pancetta, which is generally more readily available, a Roman would tend to argue for guanciale (a more delicate and tasty kind, made from the pig’s cheek, rather than its belly). Guanciale is certainly the kind you’d use for an Amatriciana, for instance, but opinions on the Carbonara vary. Some actually argue that the original Carbonara used pancetta, from the American soldiers’ supplies. Of course, some debate also reigns on whether the bacon should be fried on it’s own, or rather after having sautéed some garlic or onion (not both, that’s anathema!).

Then there’s the cheese. Typical Roman is the Pecorino Romano, a hard mature cheese made from ewe’s milk. Internationally, of course, the Parmiggiano-Reggiano is better known but, as the name betrays, this cheese is more typical of the Emilia-Romagna than Lazio. If you want to go for the more regional taste, I’d vote for Pecorino. But then, both are very tasty, and salty, which is why one often replaces the other, as the effect is quite similar.

Oh the eggs. I tend to love simpler preparation, so I’d tend to add the whole egg. Some argue, though, that it’s better to use just the egg yolk. Then, there’s all the shades of opinion in between!

Finally, the pasta. Usually, I’ve seen it served in restaurants with spaghetti. My local advisers consider it a no-no. Better go for pasta corta (short pasta, like penne or rigatoni, not spaghetti or linguine), as the bacon, cheese and egg stick better to it.

I had said finally. Yes, no Roman would add anything else. Forget cream or besciamella. And of course, you may add peas, broccoli, mushrooms, or other vegetables as some cooks do outside Italy … but then, just don’t call it Carbonara.

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