A well made Carbonara is a delight. Creamy fresh eggs mixed with strong cheese and crispy guanciale and flecked with copious amounts of black pepper.
There is a restaurant in Rome called La Carbonara that makes it without pepper, stating that tourists don’t like pepper. Oh dear!
The origin of this dish is a matter of debate and speculation.
There are (as far as I know) 3 different “stories”, all of them improbable!
What we do know is that it’s likely a fairly recent dish from Lazio (the region were Rome is) as there are no references made to it in cookery books older than 50 years. Serious food historians all agree that it’s a country dish, part of the traditional cooking of farmers as they had the eggs, meat and cheese on hand to make this dish.
Theory 1. It’s named after Roman Carbonai, men who worked in forests carbonizing wood to make charcoal. It’s unlikely because first there were very few forests around Rome and second, the Carbonai were seasonal workers who came from far away and didn’t have access to the fresh farm ingredients that make up this dish.
Theory 2. It’s named after a group of clandestine insurgent Italians named “Carbonari” (which means the same thing as “Carbonai” who were fighting for freedom from the Austrians about 200 years ago. Unlikely because these guys met in secret, hardly cooking and having a grand time with costly ingredients like eggs, ham and pepper, a spice in that epoch that only the wealthy enjoyed.
Theory 3. It was invented by American soldiers who in 1944 when liberating Rome during the Second World War, mixed their bacon (which apparently they brought with them) and scrambled powdered eggs with Italian spaghetti.
Speculation aside, it’s simplicity itself and I urge you to try it!
For 4 people you’ll need (approximately…as always, to taste is a better guide)
150 grams of guanciale which is the cured cheek of a pig. It’s not so easy to find outside of Italy, so you can substitute pancetta or cured (not smoked!) bacon.
100 grams finely grated aged pecorino cheese. If you can’t find it, use the best quality parmigiano or mix it with pecorino Romano which is very salty.
4 freshest organic eggs.
400 grams spaghetti (the rule of thumb is 100 grams per serving)
Black pepper, freshly ground
Best quality olive oil.
Put a large pot of water on to boil.
While you’re waiting for the pasta water:
Dice the guanciale or pancetta and cook it very slowly in a pan with a spoon or two of olive oil until it’s crispy. Set aside.
Beat the eggs in a bowl until they are really mixed…no white bits floating about as we want a really creamy texture, no scrambled eggs!
Add the grated cheese and black pepper to the eggs.
Do not add salt as both the cheese and the guanciale are salty.
Cook the spaghetti until al dente.
Add the crispy guanciale and the oil, stir, now add the cheesy egg mixture and toss until the spaghetti is fully coated. The heat from the pasta “cooks” the eggs, leaving a creamy texture. Serve immediately. This dish does not take kindly to waiting!
A few notes:
Curdled (scrambled) eggs ruin the dish. Some people add heavy cream, others use mostly egg yolks to combat this. To me it’s a shame to waste egg whites and cream adds an element that changes the nature of the dish entirely.
So what to do?
Make sure your eggs are thoroughly beaten. Add the grated cheese to the eggs before adding to the pasta, add the guanciale and stir thoroughly before adding the eggs. These simple steps keep the eggs from curdling.