Fat chance

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So I’m back home in Rome. Home in Rome, even after eight years that still sounds strange. It doesn’t feel strange though, it feels just right. This is due in no small part to my son, my blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who looks decidedly English, but whose gestures, countenance and fervent, slightly comical mamma suggest otherwise and who is unmistakably content to be back.

Nearly three weeks in England was, as predicted, exactly what I needed. Long enough to immerse myself in the things I pine for – not least the beauty and beast that is family – quash the nostalgia and quietly notice the things I don’t miss one jot. Long enough also to miss Rome. To really miss Rome. Which may seem surprising given my exasperation before I left!  Or maybe it’s not so surprising! My exasperation at my adopted city was after all just that: exasperation, a familiar and relatively innocuous state. A state that’s quashed as quickly as my nostalgia for London when pitted against the things I truly, deeply like about the city that saved me, not least her sublime and shambolic beauty, her unexpectability and her infuriating but alluring attitude. And these three.

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From left to right, pancetta, guanciale and lardo. But more about these marbled slices in a moment. On arriving home in Rome, having pounded and weaved our way like territorial tom cats through Testaccio and having put the small tom cat to bed (I confess that by 7 30 I love bed time more than my son?) I settled down in front of my computer with an embarrassingly large glass of red to catch up on my reading. It’s January and there’s much talk of resolution, of greens, grains, gluten-less and guices, excuse me juices. Quite right too. And then there are the Italians (and converted Italians) who – almost without exception – are talking about lardo, lardo, guanciale, pancetta and salumi. In short cured pork products with a fearless, stupendous and delicious quantity of silky, milky-white fat. Superlative fat, now how about that!

Fully embracing the idea that January is the month to insulate and relish the fatted pig (It’s traditionally the month for slaughtering and then preserving) an almost empty fridge and a rude yearning for cured pork it seemed wholly appropriate that having bought my greens and grains I should visit a fine purveyor of all things cured: Volpetti. I explained my plans to Claudio who suggested pancetta and lardo from Toscana and an aged guanciale from Le Marche. The attention and care with which he handled the pieces, cut each slice and then wrapped it first in white paper then in brown was touching. Abandon preconceptions, this is good fat, the antitheses of insidious hidden fat. This is fat to be used (sparingly) with relish and to be celebrated. Lets start with Lardo.

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Not to be confused with English lard (struttoLardo – specifically lardo from the Tuscan hamlet tucked between two marble quarries: Colonnata – is pork back fat cured in white marble trough with salt, black pepper, aromatic herbs and garlic. I’d like to be cured in white marble trough. Eleonora and Emiko thank you. It’s a glorious, silken and deeply flavored delicacy that you eat as you would any other salumi, that is by the (very thin) slice. A delicacy that defies all expectations, dispels prejudice and should make Jack Sprats wives of us all.

I first ate lardo di colonnata a little under eight years ago in Tuscany. It was sliced extremely thinly and draped nonchalantly over a mound of puree di potato. I have to admit being a little bewildered when I first saw the plate. I was beautifully bewildered when I tasted the rich, silken, aromatic lardo melting – yielding really – into the soft, warm and accommodating mash: glorious and ambrosial, this is food that lingers in mouth and memory. Time has not faded or jaded, I still feel the same beautiful bewilderment when I eat lardo di colonnata on toasted bread. A few black olives, some radishes and a glass of prosecco and I have my perfect antipasto. And after the antipasto comes il primo so lets talk about guanciale. 

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Guanciale, which is cured pork jowl (guancia means cheek or jowl) is beloved by Romans and has changed the way I cook.  It has a sweet, delicate taste that is halfway between best bacon and proper well-rendered lard. It is an exceptional ingredient that imparts its distinct sweet flavour and rich fatty nature to whatever it is added too whether that be a soup, stew, pasta, torta or braise.

I use aged guanciale – sparingly, a little goes a long way – often. I adore the deep, rich, fatty, reassuring notes it imparts to whatever it touches. The Saul Berenson of cured pork.  Many Romans consider it fundamental to authentic All’amatriciana, Carbonara or to today’s recipe, another Roman classic and my favourite these days: Pasta or Spaghetti alla gricia.

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Pasta, guanciale, cooking water, pecorino romano and black pepper: Alla gricia. This much I know. Al dente spaghetti (or rigatoni, mezze maniche or tonnarelli ) is tossed with gently sautéed guanciale: the aim is to slowly soften the guanciale, keeping it translucent never brown and crisp which would negate the pleasure of biting into soft, fatty, sweetly flavored curls. Drained pasta is added to the guanciale along with a little of the pasta cooking water, this starchy water is a key to the dish, emulsifying the fat to create an almost creamy sauce for the pasta. The dish is finished with a fearless amount of bold, brazen, tangy and freshly grated pecorino romano and plenty of cracked black pepper. More pecorino scattered liberally from above is recommended. Eat.

Simple to make but – as is so often the case – practice is prudent. Practice until you can sauté the guanciale until it is perfectly soft, pink and succulent, perfectly judge the splash of pasta cooking water, understand exactly the right amount of vigorous pan shaking of spoon and wrist partaking required to bring the ingredients together. It goes without saying the ingredients should be authentic and the very best you can lay your hands on. If you can’t find guanciale and pecorino (I know I know fat chance) pancetta, parmesan and the same principles will make an extremely tasty dish, not gricia, but an extremely tasty dish none the less. Ben, some guanciale in exchange for a jar of seville orange marmalade?

Home in Rome chewing the fat and the spaghetti.

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Spaghetti alla Gricia

Serves 4

  • 450 g spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp lard (strutto) or olive oil
  • 150 g aged guanciale
  • 150 g  aged pecorino romano, grated
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted boiling water. Meanwhile place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with the lard or olive oil and place over medium heat. Slowly sauté the guanciale. When the guanciale is soft, pink and translucent and rendered it’s fat, add a small splash of water from the cooking pasta

When the pasta is al dente, set aside a cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and listen for some sizzle. Toss the pasta vigorously, coating it with the guanciale and rendered fat. Remove the pan from the heat and add three quarters of the the grated pecorino romano cheese and the black pepper, toss vigorously, and add another splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring the ingredients together into a soft creamy muddle. Divide between four warm bowls, scatter over the rest of the pecorino and serve immediately.

Next week pancetta, oh and cabbage.

58 Comments

Filed under antipasti, guanciale, lardo, pancetta, pasta and rice, primi, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

58 responses to “Fat chance

  1. I love your description of the butcher lovingly wrapping the lardo. It reminded me of my childhood visits to Sicily and buying sliced mortadella flecked with pistachios.

    • rachel

      Mortadella flecked with pistachios, now there’s another thing I should be eating, ideally in warm pizza bianca.The white coated brothers at Volpetti and full of love and pride for their products and wrapping. Stay warm.

  2. I’ve only recently discovered your blog, and wanted to say how much I enjoy it. Your posts are so beautifully written, they’re incredibly evocative, and your recipes are wonderful!

  3. Hilary

    oh, that sounds good Rachel, and beautifully described as ever!! Would you find this dish in a restaurant in Rome?

    You might like to fix this: ‘pancetta. Parmesan and the same principles will make an extremely tasty dish, not gricia, but and extremely tasty dish none the less.’ and also ‘nest week’ (at the end) – cabbage and pancetta – yum!!

    • rachel

      Hi Hilary, yes you would, it’s one of the classic Roman pasta dishes along with carbonara, amatriciana, arrabiata, cacio e pepe and alfredo. And thank you so much for the spell check, you are star (and I am very careless)

      • Hilary

        oh, you are more than welcome!! I am always happy to proof read!
        I will put gricia on my list of things to try for my next visit!

  4. My mouth is watering just reading this!

  5. Hello Rachel……..Kitty’s mama here .
    I feel dreadful because I cannot comprehend WORDPRESS!
    Can you advise me ? `just the tiniest bit ?
    francestravers@me.com

  6. lardo
    lardas
    lardamus
    How rebellious. Pig fat in January. I could squeal.
    Seriously one of your best posts. And speaking of pancetta, I have a soup that you’re sure to love. I’ll send it your way.

  7. Pork fat rules :) People who don’t eat pork don’t know what they are missing.

  8. Lauren

    Rachel, my glasses of wine are also embarrassingly large it’s really the only way :-)

  9. Looks incredible! I grew up eating our raised pork. Nothing is better than pork fat. Not the commercial garbage they sell at mass supermarkets. The wonderful ones in your photo are incredible!

    • rachel

      Now you see that is the way to eat pork. It is a dying tradition but until quite recently many Italian families, bought a pig (or half) that would be slaughtered and then preserved, cured, salted to feed them for the year. Much supermarket pork is terrifying.

      • Thank you, and thanks for sharing your story. Pork gets such a bad rap and with all the factory farm raised it is for good reason. There is however the forgotten happy raised pigs that are not mass produced but raised with love and hormone and antibiotic free. This is the only pork we should eat :)

  10. Back with a vengeance Rachel. Love the Homeland reference too. Har.
    I also love how the word “guanciale” also means pillow or cushion, and you’re gastronomically encouraging us to cuddle up and snuggle in with the guanciale.

  11. laura

    Bentornata! And thank you for this homecoming gift to us! I love guanciale, but it isn’t always easy to find here in Florence. The Florentines seem to prefer pancetta, but I agree that guanciale is better – at least for the recipes you mention. Am very curious about makingromaroma’s recipe for soup!

    • rachel

      It’s good to be back and yes soup recipe, me too, I have demanded it immediately. I have to admit, I like pancetta as much as guanciale in carbonara but then I am a barbarian. Stay warm x

  12. I am jealous of your lardo! There’s a line I didn’t imagine I would say. Very glad that you and Luca are happy to be home. I have a theory about Saul – I have thought from day one that he is behind it all. What a cynic I am! I have been thinking about marmalade this morning and wondering if I have missed the Sevilles.

    • rachel

      You are brilliant, after all he did fail that first lie test and he has been stationed all over the world….that said it would be a terrible blow if Saul had turned. We would forgive him and his beard though. You see, another reason to for us to be drinking embarrassingly large glasses of wine together and discussing the subtleties of Mandy’s performance, I missed the sevilles so it will be ordinary oranges here, but as we know ordinary is often very very good xx

  13. As usual, Rachel, you have me salivating and ready to rush out to buy and indulge in a little pork fat.

  14. English lard would be awful, beef dripping maybe. Lovely to see something written about lardo.

  15. bea

    I really love your blog, Rachel, and I’m truly happy you’re back in Roma. I love the idea that I might run into by pure chance…. Welcome back!

  16. Fiona Key

    Thanks for explaining all that in wonderful english prose. I shall get down to Volpetti and repeat your recipe pronto.

  17. I am so happy to have found your blog. I am in the opposite situation: I am a Venetian living in London. I miss Italy dearly, especially when it comes to food and weather, but London (Wimbledon Park, really) is starting to feel more and more like home, so much so that when I leave I miss those little aspects of daily life that make me love it so much. I have just spent a weekend in Paris and I was so unimpressed by everything there –it made me love London even more.

    I am lucky because everything is available here (if you are willing to pay premium for it): I found guanciale for my gricia and I was in heaven. Surely enough, it wasn’t like the one I ate at Roscioli or L’Arcangelo, but it did the job pretty darn well, and it warmed up a freezing January day a little bit. No juices for me, it’s too cold: pass on the pork fat, juices are for summer :)

    • rachel

      Morning Valeria,
      I am so so glad to have found your beautiful blog. I came to you via Emiko. I adore table talk. Anyway it sounds like we have much in common, not least our love for two very different but equally intriguing and beautiful cities. Wimbledon park – lovely lovely, I miss london parks.
      Thank you for coming over I am proud to have you here
      Rachx

  18. Debbie

    Just because you need to read this and I want to taste it, or better yet cook it!!

  19. I love spaghetti alla Gricia and always look forward to a trip to have this dish, along with a few other favorites. Never thought of making my own… I wonder why? Also, I will not judge you for saying you love bedtime as much as you do… Italians (my husband excluded because he totally gets it since he has become a father of two) always look shocked when I tell them my kids are in bed shortly after 8 (they are older than your son), but those few hours of peace and quiet with my husband make me lov’em even more the next day!

    • rachel

      Thank you Thank you for this bedtime companionship. I love bedtime and even though some people gasp at a 7 30 cut-off (luca chose the time not me) most of my friends Italian and English alike encourage a children to bed/adults to the wine policy.

  20. ooops, I meant trip to Rome. Sorry!

  21. I love this ode to the tastiest of salumi, who knew that there were so many of us preferring to talk about lardo than diets in the new year? So glad we all came together in this wonderful post. Thank YOU!

  22. Ah, Luca is so adorable… Also, love your top photograph. Looking forward to pancetta and cabbage!

  23. Romla Ryan

    The day after I read this I ventured through the inch of snow some 4 miles to quaint little Cranbrook. There, nestled amongst the tea-rooms, the £150-welly shops, the wonderful craft shop (where one could happily drown in wool, copydex and royal icing) and the charity shops run by scary old ladies is a coffee shop owned by the lovely Fabio. On his deli counter, right in the corner, was a slab of guanciale which proffered a wonderful opportunity for me to demonstrate my vast (and new) knowledge of this ingredient and earn for myself a nod of respect from the proprietor. So, thanks Rach, I may even get a free espresso next time…

    • rachel

      ….so next I come down we will be visiting Fabio for cured pork, an italian take on the scary old ladies of Cranbrook and a glass or three of something fizzy. Copydex ! do they still sell it? love that you are reading Best Friend You (BFY.)

  24. Rachel–I was beginning to fear you were being seduced back to the land of fog and strong tea. This is great–lardo and guanciale in the same post! Welcome back. I had stop by Rialto last night, where I enjoyed a lardo appetizer, then got home and found your post. Lardo really is exquisite. Thanks for the links to your Roman blogging sisters–they sound very well informed. Oh, and am the only one who thinks that that the marble container used for making lardo looks like a styrofoam box for taking beer to a picnic? Ciao. Ken

    • rachel

      Spot on. I was seduced, for a while, then all the reasons I left collapsed in at once. Glad, very glad to be back. I should have known you would know your lardo and haha yes it does indeed.

  25. I’d like to be cured in white marble trough… hah!

    I often wonder while in transit between the many home-ish places in my life, which direction I am in fact traveling in. Toward or away from? Notions of return and homecoming are complicated for me, as my relationships with these places are layered and nuanced. Context seems to change things. Compound ideas like “technical home” and “current place of residence” and “family home” and “birthplace” and “favorite place I ever lived” prevail. But one thing seems to be contstant and that is a yearning for feeling at home. i think at this point i’ve given up on fixing my red X on a map but I do feel the right to enjoy the feeling of home, as abstractly as I may have to define it sometimes. Yours seems lovely. Your small blue-eyed partner seems to have really warmed it up and that’s a lovely and comforting undertone to read in your writing. To think that in you he finds a home…

    Much love

    Mina

    • rachel

      Mina, you have a way with words. I on the other hand feel incredibly clumsy tonight and can’t even put together the simplest E mail. Anyway thank you for this, we have, as I already knew, much In common, not least our complicated relationship with the various places we called and call home and the journeys between them. You are right though Luca has changed the way I feel (and write) about home, our home, which is technically incredibly temporary, at this precise point in time feels absolutely right. God it needs a clean though. So enjoyed your latest post and now have a craving for soufflé – love Rx

  26. Dennis

    I made spaghetti alla gricia in New York last night — a cold night indeed — with guanciale made in New Jersey! I think it was one of the most scrumptious dishes I ever tasted. Thank you for the inspiration… and the recipe.!

  27. Really like your blog.
    On the pacetta thing: here in Serbia we also have something like this, and I’ll bet you it’s even better than the Italian stuff :)

  28. Pingback: What a nice pair | rachel eats

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