Tag: Elizabeth David

THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Vincennes | Rendezvous with Rousseau-4 — Local Ingredients and Traditional Methods

Nuala Hickey outside Hickey’s Bakery in Clonmel, Ireland. Photo © John D. Kelly

The food artisans and master chefs who seek an avant garde food sensibility present an interesting scenario. We started working on this traditional food project in 1998, almost 50 years after English cookery writer Elizabeth David said it was always about ‘local ingredients and traditional methods’ separate from the projected illusion of haute cuisine.

The first part – local ingredients that are fresh and artisanal – has been a mantra since the Nordic countries decided something needed to be done about their diet. There has been no renaissance of the second part – traditional methods – despite the sensibilities of the modern master chef. Among them we like what the Nordic chefs have done, Poul Andrias Ziska at KOKS more than Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken, without criticism of the Swedish chef. We are not so sure about Paco Morales at Noor with his reinterpretations of the Arabic culture that still define the traditional food of Andalusia.

It is a theme, is it not – Fäviken, KOKS, Nar, Noma, Noor – one word names that are clever rather than original, that seem to suggest that the ambiance is more relevant than the essence?

The artisans and restaurants that impress us are few and far between. Nuala Hickey with her traditional bakery behind the west gate in Clonmel in the Suir valley in Ireland stands tall among all the bakeries of Europe.

The Bottega del Vino in the centre of Verona, a stone’s throw from Juliette’s balcony, boasts one of the best wine cellars in Europe but it serves a range of local traditional cuisine that is unsurpassed throughout Italy, and that is no mean feat.

Stefan Welschen, with his Cheminots restaurant in Brig under the Simplon, is among a growing number of chefs across Europe with a fidelity toward traditional food produce, artisanal food products and traditional food, a Swiss success story.

Because the only people who can afford to eat at avant garde restaurants are the modern aristocracy and the modern bourgeoisie – who wouldn’t know an organoleptic moment from an orgasmic shock, and do not care that while they eat in splendour half of the people in the world live on meagre scraps. The heroes and heroines of traditional food are the people who work long hours in bars, cafes and small restaurants, to produce a quality of food that is beyond the majority of chefs who cook only for the wealthy.

It is time traditional food came out of the shadows.

Fresh food is a myth we have come to accept without thinking about it. Ironically freshness is one of the reasons why supermarkets insist on packaging and on cold or frozen transportation. It is why producers of certain fruits also insist on packaging their produce before it is ripe. In reality nothing has changed. Fresh means ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’. It also means market produce not supermarket produce, simply because farmers who sell their own produce pick it in the early dawn of the day of the market. These days soil on a vegetable is an indication that it is fresh and local!

Mara Miele has an understanding of the position we are in vis a vis sustainable food production – the production of fresh local food. When she researched food production in Tuscany during the late 1990s and early 2000s she identified a culture that had not changed much for thousands of years. The history of food can be summed up in three words, cooked, cured and curdled, or in five if you add dried and preserved. Fresh, as Massimo Montanari had pointed out and Miele had reiterated, had been the preserve of the aristocracy and their entourage but the winds of change were evident.

When we started the Fricot Project in the late 1990s, following a quick-stop survey of the state of traditional food in England, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, the European Union had just launched its (DOOR) traditional food database, to record produce and products that qualified for Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI), Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) and Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) symbols and status, the Swiss had decided to record all their indigenous produce, value-added products, traditional recipes and food culture stories while the French had begun to produce a series of books on their regional produce, products and recipes. None of this activity was coincidental.

Some said it was a reaction to the globalisation of food, the expansion of fast-food chains, the import-export model and the purchasing power of the giant supermarkets. Mara Miele noted in 2002 that ‘knowledge about typical and traditional cuisines [was] being lost from diverse national contexts’. To support her assertion she quoted a comment from Adam Gopnik that appeared to suggest French people had abandoned their traditional dishes, such as blanquette de veau, gigot d’agneau and pot-au-feu.

The New Yorker correspondent in Paris between 1995 and 2000, Gopnik collected many of the essays written for the magazine into a book – Paris to the Moon. He picked out the foibles of French cuisine and, using the result of a survey as a tool, started what was probably the first reconstruction of a nation’s food habits.

Most amusing was his remark that ‘seven percent believed that Lucas Carton, the Paris restaurant that for a century has been one of the holiest of holies of haute cuisine, is a name for badly cooked meat’. Such sarcasm was not exclusive to the French. A decade later Danes claimed they only went to Noma, the best restaurant on the planet, ‘for the experience, you don’t go for the food.’

Gopnik revisited French food follies around that time when he interviewed Alexandre Cammas, co-founder with Emmanuel Rubin of restaurant guide The Fooding. Cammas and Rubin were two gastronomic journalists apparently ‘exasperated by the conformity and conservatism of French food culture’ and wanted the world to know why.

‘Fooding’ means to eat and drink with feeling – to recognize that one eats with the nose, the eyes, and the mouth, with everything that makes us human! At the time we began, French culinary journalism was narrowly focussed on the cooking of the kidneys, the tenderness of the poularde. What was on the plate was all that counted! But who lives that way? Who eats that way? We wanted cooks who cooked with the whole of their selves and souls, not technicians of the table. French cuisine was caught in a museum culture: the dictatorship of a fossilized idea of gastronomy. And this dictatorship has been enforced by tourism: you have tourists packing in to experience gastronomy in a kind of perpetual museum of edification. We wanted to be outside that, sur le pont, on the bridge, in front, defining everything that is new. We wanted to escape – foie gras, volaille de bresse, all the clichés.’

… continued in part 5.

Fricot Feature | The Carbonara Conundrum

Amatrice Guanciale preserved pork cheek and neck from central Italy

Italians find amusement in stories about the origins of their traditional dishes. Popular traditional recipes resided for centuries in the consciousness of those who cooked in the home and in the trattoria, and rarely did the stories – never mind the ingredients and methods – ever get written down. They were passed down by rote.

The carbonara story is different. It has a plausible history. 

Before the introduction of beans and tomatoes, and after the advent of dried pasta, during a time when the apennine shepherds and woodsmen carried their mid-day meal in their back-packs, a tradition defined two rural dishes – pasta alla gricia, shepherd pasta, and pasta all’Amatriciana, the pasta of Amatrice, a town in the central apennine provence of Rieti, bordered by Abruzzo and Lazio.

Nowadays Amatrice guanciale (cured seasoned pork cheek and neck) is a product lauded for its authenticity and flavour. When those shepherds and woodsmen embarked on their trips it was an essential ingredient in a meal they made with cheese, eggs and dried pasta. Eventually tomatoes were added. It became known as pasta all’Amatriciana.

Because guanciale was preserved with black pepper, when it was added to pasta all’Amatriciana or to pasta alla gricia, it produced dark specks that resembled charcoal. Carbonada was the Abruzzese word for pancetta. It became the name given to their guanciale dish and, because they were also very fond of the pasta dishes of Amatrice, to their version of la gricia. The charcoal farmers of the region were also known as the Carbonari

That pasta dishes should be made with preserved pork, cheese and eggs – ingredients associated with the type of pastoralism practiced in the hills and mountains of Abruzzo, Lazio and Rieti – that such dishes should have a generic name among the people, and that migrant workers from the Apennines should bring them to Rome is plausible. 

Not so plausible is the argument that this combination was known among the chefs of the city. 

Pasta alla carbonara did not become generally known until the 1950s, when variations of the recipe began to appear in cookbooks.

PRODUCE / PRODUCT: Pancetta / Guanciale, Pecorino Cheese

RECIPE: PASTA ALLA GRICIA string pasta, cheese and guanciale

Pasta Carbonara

Via di Ripetta radiates from the Piazza di Popolo, the poplar tree lined square at Rome’s northern gate, continues away from the chapel of the miracle toward the tomb of Augustus and the museum of his solar clock, the ara pacis, parallel with the meandering Tiber. Here street and river depart, the Tiber twists like a snake toward the Vatican City, the Ripetta runs straight as a die into an odd-shaped four-sided junction and becomes Vicolo della Scrofa, the alley of Scrofa.

American soldiers arriving in the city from Anzio in the south-west and Cassino in the south, attracted by the ruins of the Colosseum and the Forum, the contrast of modern and contemporary Rome with Michelangelo’s hilltop square, the marble temple monument to the fallen of the First World War, the statue of Vittorio Emanuele II – Italy’s last king, and the expansive Piazza Venezia would have drifted into a warren of streets around the high-sided domed Pantheon. And found themselves in a nearby street known for its taverns and trattoria – the alley of Scrofa.

Here, in June 1944, a cook in a trattoria produced a pasta dish dressed with bacon, cheese and eggs to feed the liberators, believing they would devour anything with eggs and bacon. The dish spread through the city and became known as spaghetti alla carbonara.

A nice story, yes? True? Let’s look at the evidence. 

American quartermasters would have had access to smoked bacon and eggs (fresh and powdered). American soldiers’ Italian girlfriends graciously repaid gifts of bacon and eggs with a pasta dish that was a wonderful repast compared to war rations. Did a trattoria chef benefit from this arrangement? And produce an iconic dish? 

This brings us to the ‘American origin of spaghetti alla carbonara

Before the Anzio landing in January 1944, the Americans found themselves in Naples, with ample time to frequent the port city’s alleys and lanes. Along with folded pizza, spaghetti was a Neapolitan street food served with a meagre garnish of grated black pepper and grated pecorino cheese. According to legend an American G.I. tasted the spaghetti and decided it needed more flavour. This ingenious soldier added some powdered egg, a little smoked bacon and canned evaporated (condensed) milk.

Italians like to believe spaghetti alla carbonara comes from both traditions.

The Americans arrived in the province of Lazio at Anzio on the coast, and at Cassino in the mountains, in January 1944. They fought a battle for the abbey at Monte Cassino and gradually moved through the valleys of Lazio to arrive in Rome in early summer. During almost six months in central Italy they adapted the traditional pasta dish known as carbonara in Abruzzo, and thrived on it.

They replaced guanciale with their smoked bacon, they added condensed milk but they preferred the local version made with fresh eggs. Remembering the name the dish was known by in the mountains, they adopted it. Within a year of the ending of the war, trattoria in Naples and Rome were offering pasta alla carbonara

In 1947 the English cookery writer Elizabeth David began to compile recipes for her A Book of Mediterranean Food. She mentioned three spaghetti dishes, vis:

Neapolitan with garlic and olive oil;

Neapolitan with garlic and tomatoes; and

Sicilian with anchovies, bacon, garlic, mushrooms, olives, onions and olive oil.

In 1954 David returned to Italy to research her Italian Food cookbook. She mentioned the various types of pasta and she gave a recipe for maccheroni alla carbonara. She said it could also be made with the long tube pasta called maccheroni or with the short tube pasta called rigatoni

Her version, for four people, included two eggs beaten, cured pork cut into strips fried in butter and grated parmigiano. She suggested mixing the pork into the eggs and adding the mixture to the hot cooked pasta, stirring until the eggs thicken and ‘present a slightly granulated appearance’.

She said it was ‘a Roman dish’.

There is a coincidence here.

Maccheroni dishes feature pasta tubes. In the mountains they had a dish called pasta cacio e ova, made using the same method for carbonara, with black pepper and cheese added to the beaten eggs. The pasta used today for this dish is usually tubetti, which has a short tube shape, but spaghetti is also preferred. The pasta dishes of Amatrice are made with bucatini pasta, a string pasta thicker than spaghetti.

As for the authenticity of carbonara, we would like to think there are two distinct versions, one that is traditional to apennine rural life (including Rome) and one that is traditional to the event that was the American liberation (Naples).

Today the choice of pasta is crucial, it should be a thin strip pasta that can hold the egg or cream-egg mixture, macaroni and penne are too thick!

The Roman recipe is simple, it is as much pasta as you like, one egg per person, a good quantity of pancetta or guanciale and as much grated cheese as you want. 

The Neopolitan recipe is only different because any type of bacon can be used, with cream to make the dish rich enough to fill empty bellies.

PRODUCE / PRODUCT: Flour / Pasta, Cheese, Bacon

RECIPE: SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA spaghetti with bacon and cheese

This is an extract from THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE.

Guanciale photo credit 

Carbonara Recipes 

Text & Carbinara Photo © Fricot Project 1998-2020