I have long been an admirer of one of the most simple and satisfying pasta sauces – spaghetti alla carbonara – which combines eggs, bacon and spaghetti to great effect. I had always assumed that its origins dated back to medieval times but if that is the case it is not well-documented. Culinary folklore maintains that it is of Umbrian origin and was brought to Rome by carbonari or 'coal men', which sounds feasible and would explain the name but I can't find any hard evidence to prove that. Interestingly, it does not feature in 'La Cucina Romano' written by Ada Bon in 1930. Two heroines of Italian cuisine both give recipes for it in seminal works – Claudia Roden in 'The Food of Italy' (1989) and Marcella Hazan in 'The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking' (1992). The first written reference to it that I can find is in La Stampa newspaper in 1950 but it was Elizabeth David's 'Italian Food' published in 1954 that really brought it to international attention. Her pasta of choice was macaroni, although she does concede that spaghetti 'or noodles' are alternative options. The original cover image and illustrations by Renato Guttuso are, incidentally, a delight in their own right.
What is undisputed is that the GIs who liberated Rome from German occupation in 1944 had a penchant for it and, critically, had decent supplies of eggs and bacon. So it was they who popularised the dish at a time of hunger and celebration – no wonder they were well-received.
Opinions vary as to whether one should use smoked or unsmoked bacon or even pancetta but given the powerful American influence I think a lightly-smoked 'slab' bacon is probably preferable. Eggs should be free range and organic if possible and the spaghetti should be a dried durum wheat variety to be boiled in salty water.
Ingredients: (Serves 4)
400g x spaghetti
3 x eggs
250g x lightly smoked bacon
1 clove of garlic
Grated parmesan – half a cup
Cook the spaghetti for 11 minutes in 4 litres of water with 40g of salt then drain.
(Pasta should be cooked in water as salty as the Mediterranean).
Cut the bacon into a medium dice and fry it with the garlic in a little olive oil until both are browned – then remove the garlic.
Return the spaghetti to the pan, add the bacon and remove it from the stove.
Add the beaten eggs, salt and pepper (to season) and half the parmesan.
Stir the spaghetti until the eggs and bacon combine in a creamy texture then add the remaining parmesan and serve hot in warm, shallow bowls.
Wine-wise I'd opt for something mid-weight, red and fruity – if not something from Lazio - perhaps a Gamay, Cabernet Franc or Grenache-based blend. This month's Beaumes de Venise: Domaine de Durban 'Vielles Vignes' 2018 would be ideal.