Up until recent times, January has never been the month of diets and cleanses, at least not in Italy. There were no concerns about being fit or losing weight. Rather, the biggest concern was to keep the family fed, and warm.
In Italy, January used to be the month in which people consumed the largest quantities of pork-based product. Rearing pigs was a common practice among farming families. This is because pigs were the most convenient animals to keep: they would eat anything and, likewise, they could be eaten nose to tail. They basically made a good investment.
Pigs were traditionally butchered in winter, usually from December to mid-February, as the butchering operations needed to be carried on at low temperature. In addition, the freshly cured meats would benefit from the cold for both drying and preserving. Mind, not all cuts were turned into cured meats. Some were eaten straight away – braised, fried, roasted etc. However, curing (and therefore preserving) most of the animal meat meant having enough to eat for the rest of the year.
Among the many excellent types of cured meat belonging to the Italian tradition, guanciale is one of my favourites. Typical of Central Italy, guanciale is made from the cheek of the pig, a cut that is mainly made of fat, with only one or two thin stripes of lean muscle. The composition of the fat is different from the fat found elsewhere. It’s tougher and it has a more intense flavour. The generous salting and spicing all contribute to the unique taste of this product, as well as the wood-fire smoking.
Perhaps the most famous guanciale comes from the town of Amatrice, located on the border between Lazio and Abruzzo. Amatriciana is a pasta dish that was concocted in the area around the end of the 18th century and featuring tomatoes, guanciale, and pecorino. It was the dish of the transhumant shepherds moving from Amatrice towards Rome to sell their products.
The origin of the dish, however, dates further back in time, before the discovery of the Amaricas, with the sole difference that it didn’t have any tomatoes in it – only guanciale, pecorino, and black pepper. The name of this humble pasta dish was (and still is) gricia, from Griciano, another village not far from Amatrice.
Gricia is a dish that is telling of the lives people run in the area in which it originated. Shepherding needed energetic meals, while the nomadic lifestyle required foods that didn’t spoil too quickly. But the true fame of gricia came when it started to be cooked and consumed around Rome.
Making gricia at home isn’t difficult. All you need is the right set of ingredients and some practice, so as to master the art of melting the cheese in the pasta water to form the most perfect of sauces.
Pasta alla Gricia
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.
In the meantime, heat the oil in a large skillet over a medium heat. Cut the guanciale into thin strips and add them to the hot oil. Fry them until crisp and translucent, then remove from the heat and set aside. Place the pecorino in a glass bowl and keep handy.
When the water is boiling, lower the spaghetti. Cook them until very al dente (two-three minutes before the suggested cooking time). Drain them with a large fork or tongues and add them to the skillet with the guanciale, together with a spoonful of hot cooking water.
Set the skillet back over a medium heat. Saute the pasta for a couple of minutes, adding cooking water to finish cooking it in the sauce. Next, transfer it to the bowl with the pecorino alongside a couple more spoonfuls of cooking water and toss everything quickly to form a smooth cheese sauce coating the pasta evenly.
Finish the dish with a generous dose of black pepper, then serve right away.