Tag: Rome

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


Guanciale photo credit 

Carbonara Recipes 

Text & Carbinara Photo © Fricot Project 1998-2020

Indigenous Ingredients | Spelt

Andrew Workman surveys one of his spelt fields in Dunany, county Louth, Ireland

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was the most distinguished of the Spanish writers of the Roman imperial age.

Born in Corduba in Andalucia to a Roman equestrian family, Seneca was brought to Rome as a child and seemed destined for a political career. Instead, he became a stoic philosopher, producing wise words that carry moral echoes down the ages to us.

Seneca grew up in a Rome that distributed welfare in the form of free grain, spelt among barley and emmer, an expedient consequence of the food riots, 60 years before he was born, in 59 BC.

An ancient hardy grass thought to be native to both Persia 8,000 years ago and south-eastern Europe 4,000 years ago, spelt was cultivated throughout the continent from the Caucasus to Scandinavia.

Three thousand years ago, river valley communities in the south of Ireland were cooking with spelt berries.

The ancient Greeks and Romans expanded its use. Roman armies lived on spelt (along with barley), making an early version of polenta.

Nearly one thousand years ago, Abbess Hildegard von Bingen of Rupertsberg wrote enthusiastically about spelt. ‘It makes people cheerful with a friendly disposition,’ she said. ‘Those who eat it have healthy flesh and good blood.’

Spelt has been making a comeback in recent decades, largely in southern Germany and in nothern Switzerland, where older varieties have been cultivated.

Known as urdinkel (old spelt), the range of flours milled from spelt are going into every type of bread and pastry, replacing wheat in many recipes.

It is also becoming increasingly popular in Ireland, where Andrew and Leonie Workman grow, mill and package spelt berries and flour from their farm in Dunany, on the coast below the ancient land of Oriel above the Boyne Valley.

Spelt, with barley, einkorn and emmer wheat, remained a staple in Europe until the 20th century, when it fell out of favour for numerous reasons, not least the problems associated with harvesting, separating and milling it into flour.

The Workmans have got round these problems with modern machinery. Now spelt is one of their biggest sellers and they have high hopes for the berries, which can be used in salads and stews, to make risotto and soaked whole to be baked in bread.

Spelt Berries

Dominick Gryson, a Louth man who has experimented with ancient grains to find strong shafts for thatching, believes the Workmans have found a great artisan product.

‘Spelt does not give the same yield as modern wheats, which do not grow well here in our climate,’ he says. ‘Spelt, on the other hand, is suited to the soil and the climate and can be sold as a high-value organic product.’

Dermot Seberry, who champions the Workmans’ produce in his book, A Culinary Journey in the North-East (of Ireland), agrees. ‘They fit in with the super food group and are a substitute for risotto rice and barley in the likes of stews and black pudding,’ he says.

‘For me, it is personal. They are low-gluten and have high nutritional content, particularly for the over-thirties, who have become hyper aware of inner health. Not a trending product but very much the next big little food!’

Spelt contains beneficial minerals, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins (B and E), and has six of the eight essential amino acids that stimulate the production of happiness hormones, just as the abbess said.

But it is the low GI (glycaemic index of carbohydrates) that makes spelt a primary health product. With 35 compared to 40 for wheat and 70 for rice, spelt releases glucose more slowly into the bloodstream, balancing out blood sugar levels.

Spelt saved the early Roman Empire but it also sustained the tribes of barbarians who brought about the fall of Rome and allowed their descendants to supplant Roman power throughout Europe.

Something that powerful is worth promoting, especially now that modern wheat has lost its allure and the wisdom of the ancients, Seneca and von Bingen among them, is finally being listened to.


Legendary Dishes | Involtini di Melanzane e Prosciutto (aubergine, cheese and ham rolls)

Involtini di Melanzane e Prosciutto ITALY aubergine, cheese and ham rolls

In Rome they combine their aubergines with parmigiano, proscuitto and tomatoes to make delicious snacks.

  • 3 large aubergines, cut lengthwise into 5 mm thick slices
  • 400 g prosciutto, thin sliced Parmigiano, fresh, sliced and grated
  • 240 g fresh or tinned tomatoes
  • Basil (optional)
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • Salt

Grill aubergine slices under a hot grill, three minutes each side.

Leave to cool on a rack.

Sauté garlic in oil in a deep frying pan, add tomatoes, season with salt, cover and cook until the pulp has dissolved.

Cover each aubergine slice with a slice of prosciutto and two slices of parmigiano, finishing with two or three basil leaves, if available.

Roll tightly, pushed together.

The aubergine rolls can be cooked in the frying pan with the tomato sauce, but fasten each roll with a toothpick, and simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Alternatively transfer the tomato sauce to a small deep baking tray, place the aubergine rolls tight against each other and bake for 30 minutes in a 160°C oven. With ten minutes to go, spoon some sauce over the aubergines and sprinkle with grated parmigiano.