I have heard that Italian cuisine is the most popular style of cooking in the world. I don’t know if this is true, but what I do know is that Italian cuisine doesn’t actually exist.
I have a friend, an erudite, elegant and charming chap, whose family are well-to-do Sri Lankan aristos but who gets as apoplectic as a Millwall fan, three-nil down to West Ham at half-time, when he hears others refer to ‘Indian cooking’ or ‘curry houses’. He is quick to point out that India covers an area of 3.2 million kilometres, greater than that of the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece and Scandinavia combined. ‘How can a nation that size have a single generic cooking tradition or be summarised by one style of sauce?’ he reasons, often with veins popping at his temples and beads of sweat on his brow.
He is right, of course. And for the same reason, Italian cooking is a term that becomes meaningless as soon as you start to explore the regions of Italy and realize that each has a style of cooking, a canon of dishes and a culinary tradition that is unique and often startlingly different from its neighbours, both near and far. It is sometimes difficult for non-Italians to countenance this because we are so used to seeing a kind-of ‘greatest hits’ menu in those international Italian trattorias that include spag bol, twelve different types of pizza, plasticky mozzarella salads and soggy lasagne.What a terrible pastiche of a great country’s food heritage. Furthermore, spaghetti bolognese is a fallacy, an invention, a myth. It is the fake news of food.The pasta dish from Bologna with the meat sauce is always made with tagliatelle, uses a mixture of beef and pork, does not contain sliced mushrooms and rarely entertains any herbs, either. In Naples, purists would insist there are only two types of pizza, the Margherita and the Marinara – all other variations, they might suggest, are but passing trends. In Capri, the tricolour salad only ever comes with fresh, milky, buffalo mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and basil to rep- resent the Italian flag (don’t dare use black pepper, by the way – olive oil and salt are the only permitted additions). Poor old lasagne is even more confused.The original version from Naples contains sliced sausages and hard-boiled egg, but the béchamel version from Emilia-Romagna seems to be the iteration that persists.
As you might expect, there is a great deal of pride in the regions when it comes to produce and recipes. The fishmongers and greengrocers of Rialto Market in Venice, for example, use labels with the word nostrani. This means ours. It is important to Venetians that their asparagus comes from the neighbouring island of Sant’Erasmo or that their clams come straight from the waters of the lagoon.
Back in Blighty, we also see manifestations of local pride, provenance and tradition. One of the fiercest arguments I have ever witnessed was between a Cornish chef and a Devonian food writer. The disagreement? Whether you put clotted cream onto a scone before the jam, or vice versa.
These differences in food culture and the passions provoked by geographical variations are healthy. It is what makes the regional food of Italy so exciting. It was what motivated me to spend 14 months living in a residential district ofVenice learning to cook like a local for my latest book. But to confuse that pride with a desire for sovereignty and independence is misguided. It does not follow that in order to be part of a wider community one has to surrender to homogeny.As the UK wades through treacle towards an uncertain Brexit, I see on the dinner tables of Italy a country that has been able to celebrate its differences, embrace its similarities and do so, after jointly founding the EU in 1957, with its arms around the shoulders of its fellow member states. I hope we here in Britain are not left holding the scone trying to remember if it’s jam or cream first.
This classic causes more controversy than any other Italian dish I know. There is never such a thing as a definitive recipe, since all regions will have their own variations, but I have seen so many chefs, cooks and food writers get hot under the collar about carbonara that I thought twice about including my version in my book.
Having said that, I have steered away from scandal by keeping things conventional and using the original Roman ingredients and method. I use egg yolks rather than eggs, for a richer, more golden sauce, and I use a little Pecorino along with the Parmesan to create a bit of a tang. Guanciale, the fatty pork cheek, is great if you can get it, but good pancetta is fine if not. But under no circumstances must you use cream. Never. I’m afraid I cannot guarantee your safety if you do. It is just wrong.
400g dried spaghetti
150g chunk of pancetta (or, even better, guanciale), cut into thick, short matchsticks
4 large free-range egg yolks, beaten
100g Parmesan, grated
20g pecorino, grated
50g cold butter, cut into small cubes
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pan of well-salted water to the boil and cook the spaghetti according to the packet’s instructions.
Meanwhile, heat a large, heavy-based frying pan.When it is very hot, add the pancetta and sauté until it is starting to crisp and is turning golden brown. (No need for oil, the pancetta will release its own oil and fry nicely.)
Just before the spaghetti is done, scoop out two cupfuls of the cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta when al dente and transfer to the pan of pancetta. While still on a very low heat, coat every strand of spaghetti with the oil that has been released from the pancetta and make sure it is well incorporated. Add a few good twists of black pepper, too.
Now, remove the pasta and pancetta from the heat, add the beaten egg yolks, the butter cubes and the Parmesan, and stir vigorously with a cup of the retained cooking water. Continue until the glossy sauce coats all the pasta strands. Add more pasta cooking water from the second cup if necessary.
Divide equally onto four warmed plates. Add the grated pecorino and a few more generous twists of black pepper.