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The Carbonara Myth (Includes Recipe)
On 6th April Italians celebrate Carbonara Day, paying homage to unquestionably the most famous pasta dish to emerge from Italia. While there is some dispute as to the origins of the dish it is know that it originated in the Lazio region and the first documented mentioning of the word ‘Carbonara’ is believed to be in 1950 in the newspaper ‘La Stampa’ as a dish coveted by American GIs.
A popular theory of origination by some, usually American, scholars is that these soldiers, based in Rome, fed up with their Army food would take their rations of bacon and eggs to local restaurants where the chefs would use them to make more interesting meals.
One of my favourite versions of the story revolves around the Carbonari, a secret society that may have been an offshoot of the Freemasons who paved the way for Italian unification, which finally happened in 1861. The story goes that after days of plotting and influencing political events the Carbonari would return to their lodges to eat a quick meal of Pasta, Eggs, Cured Pork and Pecorino.
It is unlikely that it was created by the secret society of Carbonari or that American GIs were responsible for its creation; while technically plausible, there were already similar dishes already in Roma before this, not to mention eggs and bacon not being unique ingredients only available to American soldiers.
Far more likely is that it evolved from the Neapolitan dish Cacio e Pepe, a pasta dish with cheese and pepper, via Lazio in the form of ‘Pasta alla Gricia’ where Guanciale (pork cheek bacon) was added. At this point someone thought “what this dish needs is an egg!”. This evolution created the perfect quick and easy meal for ‘Carbonari’, charcoal men who would deliver coal from Umbria to Lazio and the most likely source of the name.
Irrespective of the origin, this simple and delicious dish is a firm favorite all over the world. The chefs at Punto prepare a very traditional version of Carbonara alla Romana as made by my nonna, the late Lidia Rea, which she would undoubtedly be delighted for me to share.
A few essentials are fresh pasta of a long strand type, such as spaghetti. Fresh eggs and guanciale (cheek bacon) or pancetta (belly bacon). I will mention that our butcher, Block & Bottle on Heaton Road, make their own exceptional guanciale. Finally, a plastic mixing bowl.
Carbonara alla Romana
2 Large & Fresh Free Range Eggs – At Room Temerature
2 Large Egg Yolks – Again at Room Temperature
50g Grana Padano (Parmesan)
50g Pecorino Cheese or More Parmesan
80g Guanciale or Pancetta Diced Into 1cm Cubes
200g Fresh Spaghetti/Linguine/Fettucine
Boil a pan of salted water, it should be ‘as salty as the Mediterranean’, the best ratio is 20g salt to 2 litres of water. It will look like a lot of salt but trust me, you will have perfect pasta!
While the water is boiling heat a non-stick pan until it’s almost smoking then add the guanciale and cook down until nicely browned with crispy edges. The fat will render down but don’t be tempted to get rid of any. Put the pan aside off the heat.
In a small bowl beat the eggs and yolks and then beat in the Grana Padano & Pecorino to make a creamy paste.
Put your pasta into the boiling water and cook according to the packet instructions, preferably ‘al-dente’. Keep a little starchy pasta water aside in a cup before draining the pasta and mixing will the cooked guanciale, be sure to coat the pasta well with the rendered oil then transfer to the plastic mixing bowl mentioned before. Plastic will keep the heat in the pasta unlike a ceramic or metal bowl.
Vigorously beat the egg and cheese mixture again with around 2 tablespoons of starchy pasta water then pour over the pasta and give everything a good stir, coating the pasta thoroughly. The heat from the pasta and guanciale will cook the egg. Finish with a good pinch of black pepper and serve in two warm (not hot) pasta bowls. Feel free to finish with a sprinkle of parsley, unless you’re a carbonara purist of course, in which case this can be omitted.
Of course, if you haven’t time you’re always welcome to visit us on Heaton Road and we can do the cooking instead. Buon Apettito!
Zeno Meynell-Rea. Operations Director. Punto Italian Kitchen