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.
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.
Not to be confused with English lard (strutto) Lardo – 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.
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.
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.
Spaghetti alla Gricia
- 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.