The idea to make my own guanciale (cured pork cheek) was sparked by a controversy which still smolders today about the origins of spaghetti carbonara. Some say it was invented by World War II GIs in Italy who were homesick for bacon and eggs. Still others insist that it was devised by coal miners as a quick and easy meal to cook over a campfire on a lunch break. One source was adamant that the name came from the tiny flecks of black pepper in the dish that resemble coal dust. But the explanation that has the sharpest ring of truth can be found in Anna Gossetti della Salda’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane where she explains that spaghetti carbonara was a meal prepared by charcoal makers in the Apennines. In fact there are many dishes in the Italian repertoire that were created by shepherds, forest workers, or hunters, and were limited to a few simple ingredients that could be carried in a satchel and cooked over a campfire. There is, however, no disagreement regarding the meat that flavours spaghetti carbonara. Any self-respecting Roman will tell you that it must contain guanciale, the cured pork cheek that is a specialty of that ancient city. Therein lies the problem in making an authentic carbonara. While pancetta is now a pretty common item, even in some supermarkets, few merchants are familiar with guanciale. To have a genuine spaghetti carbonara experience I was going to have to make it myself.
As luck would have it a friend called me with the news that a neighbour of his was butchering a couple of her organic pigs and I could have a whole side of pork if I wanted it. While it may seem extreme to buy 100 pounds of pig just to get a jowl, the rest of the pork would be put to good use in sausages, chops, bacon, and ham. I jumped at the opportunity.
Once the pork arrived I started hunting around for a recipe. Mario Batali’s version from his Babbo restaurant in New York seemed the obvious place to start. It looked quite simple but the spicing was almost too austere, just black peppercorns and thyme, and didn’t seem complex or sweet enough to contrast the intense porkiness of the guanciale. I next turned to the pancetta recipe in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s peerless Charcuterie. This was closer to what I was looking for but I chose to eliminate the recipe's garlic and bay leaves concluding that they were too assertive and would mask the flavour of the pork. I did add a small amount of curing salt as insurance against botulism, though. A botulism outbreak in a restaurant where I once worked had given me a healthy respect for the harm that this rare but ghastly toxin could do (it happened over a year before I had started working there and the culprit was improperly canned wild mushrooms) . I was finally ready to make my guanciale.
For one jowl, approximately 1 pound 13 ounces (with skin removed)
Scant ½ cup kosher salt
Scant ½ cup sugar
15 black peppercorns, coarsely ground
6 juniper berries, lightly bruised
4 allspice berries, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon Prague Powder 1 (also known as Instacure 1)
Place the jowl in a non-reactive container just large enough to hold it. Combine all the other ingredients and rub them well into both sides of the cheek . Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for five to eight days (turning every other day) or until the jowl feels quite firm to the touch.
When the curing is complete rinse the jowl under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
Tie a piece of string around the middle and hang in a cool (not more than 60F or about 15C), relatively dry, dark place for 3 – 6 weeks until it is quite firm. My basement pantry, a fairly consistent 55 degrees and 70% humidity, was perfect.
After about two weeks the guanciale sprouted a bloom of fuzzy white mold. I checked a number of online sources and was relieved to discover that all was not lost. I simply wiped it off with a cloth soaked in vinegar. I cut the jowl into 2 and 4 ounce portions that were then vacuum-packed and frozen.
When the time came to make my spaghetti carbonara I consulted Le Ricette Regionali Italiane for a recipe. I already knew a few things for sure: cream has no place in spaghetti carbonara and the practice of adding extra egg yolks doesn’t make much sense either. The mountain workers for whom this dish was a mainstay would hardly have discarded a precious egg white or whipped up a batch of meringues with a leftover. I followed della Salda’s recipe quite closely but omitted the whole garlic clove that she sautes briefly with the guanciale. I didn’t want anything to muddy my first taste of the pure clean flavour of the guanciale.
Here is the recipe: For each person (for a main course) you will need 4 ounces (about 125 grams) spaghetti or penne, 1 free-range egg, 1½ ounces (about 40 grams) guanciale, cut into small pieces, 2 tablespoons grated pecorino romano cheese (or 1 tablespoon each of parmesan and pecorino romano), and pepper.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add at least 1½ tablespoons of salt. Cook the pasta until it is just resistant to the bite.
While the pasta is cooking place the guanciale in a large frying pan over medium heat and cook until crisp. Discard about half of the fat leaving the guanciale in the pan. In a small bowl combine the eggs, cheese, plenty of black pepper, and a pinch of salt. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and immediately dump it into the pan with the guanciale. Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the top and stir and toss until each strand of pasta is coated with the unctuous sauce. Pass extra grated cheese and the pepper grinder at the table.
If you’re cooking this dish as a first course in a traditional Italian meal, 1 pound of pasta and 4 eggs will serve 6.
The spaghetti carbonara was a huge success. The slightly sweet and salty guanciale complemented the creaminess of the egg and cheese beautifully. Which begs the question: Is there any point making carbonara without guanciale? If you feel, as New York writer Calvin Trillin does, that spaghetti carbonara deserves its own national holiday, then certainly a little pancetta or smoky bacon will still give you a dish worthy of devotion.