It’s everyone’s preferred pasta sauce, but do you know the different theories of its origin? Yohann J Setna enlightens us
What’s your favourite food? It’s a question I’m often asked, especially by people who know my ‘foodie’ proclivities. I can’t think of a more difficult question to answer. It changes from day to day, depending on my mood, the weather, what part of the world I’m in, what my last meal was, what my next meal is going to be… However, by using a process of elimination, I can narrow down my favourite food group to be the family of the noodle. Within this group, it sort of gets split up into Asian and Italian, and I adore both – I could eat them every single day of my life, but if absolutely, had to, had to, choose one, I think I would lean in the direction of Italy. At least today I would. Now let’s talk sauce to accompany my pasta. Here again the choices are almost as numerous as the hundreds of pasta shapes which the creative culinary minds in Italy have conjured up. However, in this ocean of choices, I think my clear winner is a straight up carbonara sauce. I just love the simplicity of it. The fact that 5 simple ingredients combined together can produce something so utterly heavenly just fascinates me. It’s one of the classic Italian sauces whose origin is much discussed. There are several competing theories. All are anecdotal, none are definitive.
One theory is derived from the meaning of the dish’s name – alla carbonara, or in the style of the coal worker. As the name implies, the dish was eaten by coal workers, or that because of the abundant use of coarsely ground black pepper, the dish looked like it was sprinkled with flakes of coal. Another story is that it was created during the food shortages after the liberation of Rome in 1944 by Allied troops, who distributed their military rations which consisted of powdered eggs and bacon. The locals added these ingredients to their local stores of dried pasta and cheese, and voila, a classic was born! One theory suggests that a famous restaurant in the Campo de Fiori in Rome, ‘La Carbonara’, was named after its specialty. The restaurant has been open since the 1920s and does have a pasta alla carbonara on its menu, but the restaurant owners deny any such connection. The simplest story, and therefore the most likely one is that the dish had always existed at the family level and in local trattorias. Cheese, cured pork, salt, pepper and pasta were all kept fresh without the need for refrigeration, and eggs were readily available at local farms. All that was needed to combine these simple ingredients into a delicious meal was fire and a pot.
I am a total carbonara-holic. I cook it at home at least once a month. I am tempted to order it every single time I set foot in an Italian restaurant, although I am banned to do so by my wife and a couple of my friends (whose name I won’t mention, but you know who you are), who say that I always complain that it’s not up to the mark. My counter-argument to their complaint is that if a chef in an Italian restaurant cannot make something as simple as a carbonara correctly, he should pack up his knives and go home. After all, it’s just pasta, eggs, cheese, cured pork and black pepper. I’m not too fussy about the type of pasta used. I don’t care if it’s made with Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano, or even a combination of the two. I am willing to accept the substitution of bacon instead of the more traditional guanciale or pancetta, but what I absolutely draw the line at is cream, onion, garlic, and other blasphemous additions. I’m also against the use of crazy amounts of sauce in which the pasta seems to be drowning. I just can’t bear to see a puddle of claggy sauce left over on my plate after I eat my pasta. The sauce is supposed to be just a dressing for the pasta, nothing more. It should allow the flavour and texture of the pasta to shine through, not overpower it into submission. The last time I had a truly memorable plate of carbonara in a restaurant, was in a small trattoria near Lake Como. The chef had used bucatini, which is one of my favourite pasta shapes, a generous lashing of guanciale and just the yolks of the eggs. It was a little plate of heaven. Memories of that meal and writing this piece have got me all hopped up for my next fix of carbonara, so I’m off to my kitchen to whip up a batch. See you all next month!