When I was asked to write about pasta alla carbonara on the occasion of World Carbonara Day, I thought of the many times I have turned my nose up at versions of the dish that don’t respect the simple, traditional combination of egg, pecorino cheese and guanciale (which is cured pork cheek).
After all, the beauty of Italian food lies in its simplicity, generally three ingredients that marry together and become a paradise of flavours. God forbid the use of cream ... and God forbid the use of pancetta instead of guanciale.
I have always been critical of any version that diverged from the austerity of the traditional, as I felt it was disrespecting the Italian heritage, a part of myself. As an Italian emigrant, I feel like my identity and my heritage are very much entwined.
Parmesan or pecorino? Guanciale or pancetta? Black pepper or no pepper? These are the questions involved in the codification of a carbonara. Because we are in Rome, it is pecorino and guanciale that are king
Back in 2015, I was in Italy with chef Mark Moriarty, who was cooking at Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan, a community project by chef Massimo Bottura to provide meals for the most disadvantaged. To my horror, Mark decided to cook his version of carbonara for a room full of Italians. At the sight of cream, I nearly fainted. But the result was a delicious plate of pasta, that Mark respectfully called Marconara.
Since then, I have become less dogmatic. After all, many dishes that are considered Italian abroad do not even originate in Italy but are the evolution of traditions that travelled with Italian emigrants and adapted to local customs and ingredients. Fish and chips is a prime example. As such, I must accept that, as one of the most popular dishes in Italy and in the world, carbonara will also be one of the most reinterpreted and revisited.
When I started researching the origin and the evolution of this cult dish, a friend suggested I read The Perfect Carbonara, by the food historian Eleonora Cozzella, a book that takes the reader through a journey of discovery from the origins of the dish to its current form.
Carbonara did not exist until after the second World War. That said, the combination of egg, cheese and pork meat is present in Italian regional cooking in many forms prior to the 1950s.
In order to understand carbonara, you must realise that it is, first and foremost, a Roman creation, an evolving dish that has adapted itself to a changing society.
Italian cuisine is intensely regional, each region with its own voice, each city with its own accent. Moreover, the key concept in regional cuisine is that it hinges on a few key ingredients, available locally.
Parmesan or pecorino cheese? Guanciale or pancetta? Black pepper or no pepper? These are the questions involved in the codification of a carbonara. Because we are in Rome, it is pecorino and guanciale that are king.
Look at other Roman dishes such as the grici, a combination of pasta, guanciale and pecorino cheese, or the amatriciana, prepared with pasta, guanciale, pecorino cheese and tomatoes. As the pride of the Italian capital city, a carbonara recipe requires a sauce of eggs, pecorino cheese, and guanciale to perfectly coat a long pasta shape (always dried) such as perciatelli, bucatini or thick spaghetti. The specks of black pepper evoke the coal miners that, according to one legend, gave this pasta its name (carbone in Italian means coal).
I see no issue in itself in adding cream to your carbonara. It is no secret that Ireland offers incredible dairy produce and that the Irish palate prefers rich, creamy sauces. Go right ahead. Add cream, use bacon instead of guanciale, maccheroni instead of perciatelli, bucatini or thick spaghetti. The beauty of a recipe that travels through time and place is, in my humble opinion, its adaptability. Still, I have my limits. When I read vegan carbonara, my Italian heart halts.
Let us today celebrate the famous pasta alla carbonara, with its history, its specific choice of ingredients, dictated by the land and local tradition; typically Roman and profoundly Italian.
Any other variation is not worthy of the term carbonara, at least not to an Italian. Carbonara is a national treasure, one that Italians proudly claim and proudly protect. To all other versions of the dish I say, why not? But let’s not call it carbonara.
Manuela Spinelli’s classic pasta alla carbonara
360g thick spaghetti (no 9), bucatini or perciatelli (generally 80g per person but you can increase to 100g if eating it as a main course)
4 egg yolks (one per person)
50g pecorino romano
20g black pepper
1 Cut the guanciale into batonette 0.7 x 1.5 cm, sauté till crunchy, separate the guanciale from the fat (leave the fat in the pan) and keep the guanciale warm.
2 In a bowl, mix the egg yolk and pecorino.
3 Cook the pasta al dente in salted water (keep in mind the guanciale and pecorino are both salty).
4 Drain the pasta, preserving some of the cooking water.
5 Pour the pasta into the pan with the warm guanciale fat and toss gently. Add freshly ground black pepper and the mixture of egg and cheese to the pan. Add a little cooking water and toss gently.
6 Add the guanciale and toss gently once again to make sure the pasta is well coated in the sauce.
7 The sauce should be silky and creamy.
Manuela Spinelli is secretary-general of Euro-Toques Ireland