It was during one of my early market expeditions that I came across this Italian salumeria stand in the posh Parnell neighbourhood farmers market. Among the myriad of artisan cured Italian meats I eyed a sizable spectacular piece of Guanciale. I had to have it! What is it, you may ask? Well, it is the essential ingredient to an authentic Carbonara made from the pig’s cheeks, cured with salt and pepper. It is mild and beautifully aromatic, with a peppery flavour. I think it is subtler than pancetta, it's almost flowery.
Click link for Otello's Traditional Italian Small Goods site: http://www.otellos.co.nz/
The dish itself originates from Rome. Back in the day Romans were very poor and had to make due with whatever scraps of meat they could get their hands on. Roman cuisine is, at its heart very humble, characterized by the use of cheap cuts and offal, or as Anthony Bourdain would call it, “the nasty bits”. This is cucina povera at its best.
Every time I make this dish, I am reminded of my first time. It was on a scorching mid-day in August in Rome. Trying to escape both the relentless sun and the bustling tourists, we made our way onto a narrow street across the Tevere. There, tucked away (as are all the good places to eat it seems) was a little Trattoria. It felt like stepping into Nonna’s dining room (or so I liked to imagine). There, I had this humble quintessential Roman pasta dish that induced in me the comforting sensation of being seven years old again, beckoned in from playing outside into the dim yet welcoming interior, and being nurtured back to life ready to take on the rest of the day.
Most people find it next to impossible to find Guanciale outside of Italy so they make due with bacon or pancetta for this dish. Being a stickler for authenticity, and knowing that these guys cure all their meats really well from nice free range New Zealand piggies, I just had to have my stash for future use. So here goes my as-authentic-as-it-gets Spaghetti alla Carbonara:
A word of warning: this is the most deceivingly simple of dishes. It is tricky to get just the right balance between taste and consistency so I will do my best to guide you through it.
Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
Spaghetti (use a good Italian brand) – around 120 to 140 g/person
1 whole egg/person
Parmigiano-Reggiano - grated
Guanciale - diced (can use pancetta or double smoked bacon)
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add in a few tablespoons of salt.
- Meanwhile, in a skillet, brown diced Guanciale in a bit of olive oil. Set aside.
- In a bowl, whisk egg, grated parmigiano, salt and pepper to taste. The consistency should be like curdled milk or runny cottage cheese. Remember this is your sauce for the pasta so season well. Taste it.
- Meanwhile place spaghetti in boiling water. Give it a few good stirs. Make sure you follow the instructions on the package and don’t cook it for any longer than indicted. Taste to make sure it is al dente.
- Once pasta is cooked, take off the heat and drain keeping back a bit of the starchy pasta water as it may be necessary in the event that it is too dry.
- Stir in the browned Guanciale into the pasta.
- Then pour pasta into the eggy bowl and quickly stir everything together so that the pasta is nicely coated. Keep it moving around, stirring so as to ensure the egg does not begin to cook but also as a means of creating the unctuous texture that results from this action along with the cheese, egg and starch. If it seems too dry now is the time to add a bit of the left over starchy pasta water.
- Top off with some more grated parmigiano reggiano and pepper.
- Eat immediately!