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According to the food historian, Clifford Wright, the origin of pasta carbonara is not really known. There are several competing theories, but all are anecdotal.

The first theory is said to come from a dish made in the Apennine mountains of Abruzzo by woodcutters who made charcoal for fuel. They would cook the dish over a hardwood charcoal fire and use penne rather than spaghetti because it was easier to toss with the eggs and cheese.

The second theory is the one that gives the meaning to the dish’s name – alla carbonara or coal worker’s style. This name implies that the dish was eaten by coal workers or that because of the abundant use of coarsely ground black pepper the dish resembled coal flakes.

Another story is that due to the food shortages after the liberation of Rome in 1944, the Allied troops distributed military rations consisting of powdered egg and bacon which the locals used with water to season the easily stored dried pasta.

There is also a theory that in the province of Ciociaria, in the region of Lazio near Rome, pasta was seasoned with eggs, lard and Pecorino cheese. During the World War II German occupation of Rome, many middle class families escaped the occupation and fled to Ciociaria, where they learned about this dish. After the war, Roman cuisine became very popular throughout Italy and this dish became a prime example.

Another story suggests that the famous restaurant in the Campo de Fiori in Rome, La Carbonara, was named after its speciality. Although the restaurant has been open since the early part of the twentieth century and does have carbonara on its menu, the restaurant denies any such connection.

The simplest story, and therefore the most likely, is that the dish had always existed at the family level and in local trattorias. Cheese, pork, olive oil, salt, pepper and pasta were all kept fresh without refrigeration and eggs were readily available at local farms. All that was needed was a pot and a fire. An eyewitness account supporting this theory can be found in a cookbook titled, Sophia Loren’s Recipes & Memories. The actress described how during the filming of Two Women in the late 1950s, in the mountains near Rome, the crew came upon a group of carbonai who offered to prepare food for them. They prepared carbonara. The director, Vittorio De Sica, and Loren had second helpings.  Loren returned the next day to learn how to make the dish. (An accomplished home cook, Loren claimed the recipe was exactly as the carbonai made it but her rendition calls for cream—an addition most carbonara connoisseurs would not agree with. The dish was also popular among the American troops stationed in Italy; and when they returned home, they made “spaghetti alla carbonara” popular in Italian cuisine.

And, the debate goes on….

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Pasta Carbonara

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup minced guanciale, pancetta or bacon (about 1/4 pound)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine or other long, thin pasta
4 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, or more to taste

Directions

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.

In a medium skillet, combine the olive oil and pork/bacon and turn heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat.

Add salt to the boiling water and cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve about 1 cup of water before the draining pasta.

Beat eggs in a large warmed pasta serving bowl. Stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan and the bacon and its juices. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with egg mixture.

Add a little of the pasta cooking water to moisten. Season with plenty of black pepper, and serve.

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