All through the ages, 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 –no one would have thought to deprive their body of energies in such a cold month, and in fact, January was the exact opposite of dieting.
January was (and to some extent still is) the month of pork. And us ladies at Italian Table Talk couldn’t miss such a great occasion to talk about such an important part of the Italian food culture — that is pork and, in general, the art of curing meat. A tradition and an art which is centuries old and embraces the whole country, differing once again from region to region and gifting us with an extremely wide variety of types and styles of salumi. So, before we proceed any further, let me introduce the themes of today’s episode: Emiko digs into the history of one of the most famous Tuscan salumi, lardo di Colonnata; Giulia discovers (another) traditional Tuscan salume, buristo, and makes some killer fried eggs with it; and Jasmine creates a fantastic kosher version of the famous Roman pasta dish, amatriciana –which we will talk a bit about later.
Owning one pig or more was in use amongst peasant families of all regions. As an animal, pig was particularly convenient for the numerous family groups living in the country and working in the fields: it could be fed about anything; it didn’t need much care, and it could be eaten and used from nose to tail. It was what we could call a good investment. Pigs were traditionally slaughtered in the cold months of the year, namely from December to mid-February, with a peak in January, after Christmas time. The reason was mainly practical: all the operations to kill and handle the fresh meat needed to be done at low temperature. At a time when refrigeration wasn’t available, this meant doing it in winter. In addition, the freshly cured meet would benefit from the cold for both drying and preserving. Not all the cuts were turned into cured meat. In fact, some were eaten straight away –braised, fried, roasted etc. However, curing (and therefore preserving) most parts of the pig meant having enough of a supply of meat (fat, protein and energy) for the whole family for the rest of the year. A little at a time, it goes without saying, and wasting nothing, not even blood, with which a sausage (sanguinaccio) was made. Most cured meats in Italy were processed through salting and adding spices. Depending on the cut and quality of the meat (lean to fat meat ratio), different techniques were used. Some parts were ground and put into a casing to make salami or sausages. Others were handled as a whole, like the belly (pancetta), the leg (prosciutto), the gluteus (culatello), the neck (coppa or capocollo), the cheek (guanciale) etc. Throughout the centuries, some areas of Italy became famous for specific types of cured meat because of the particular set of skills in handling specific cuts, or because a particularly successful recipe was created to make salame. Some of these products are still made more or less in the same way they used to, and many of them have also earned the PDO certification.
Although the cured meat I am going to focus on next doesn’t belong directly to my food heritage, it is a true gem of Italian norcineria which deserves to be brought to footlight and that I always wanted to share on these pages: guanciale. Typical of Central and Southern 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 in it. The composition of the fat is different from the fat found in the belly or in the back of the pig, as it is tougher and it has more intense, flavorsome characteristics. To make guanciale, the triangular cut of meat between the cheek and the throat is selected, dry-salted and hanged for up to five days. After that, spices and herbs such as black pepper, chili pepper, garlic, and rosemary are rubbed externally. Guanciale is then partially smoked on a wood fire and then cured up to two-three months in a cold and humid environment.
Among all the types of guanciale, particularly famous is guanciale di Amatrice, a little town on the border between Lazio and Abruzzo, which owe its fame to a pasta dish typical of Lazio: amatriciana. Amatriciana is a pasta dish born around the end of the 18th century and featuring tomato sauce, guanciale, pecorino and black pepper. It was the dish of the transhumant shepherds moving from the Apennines, specifically from the town of Amatrice, toward the capital (Rome) to sell their products on the local markets. Many of them eventually moved to the city to work in local osterie, being renowned for their cooking skills.
The origin of the dish, however, dates further back in time, with the sole difference that it didn’t have tomato in it. First, tomatoes hadn’t come from the other side of the ocean yet. Then, when they started to be cultivated, they were available only during summertime, as no preserving technique had been invented until the end of the 1700s. The original version of amatriciana only had guanciale, pecorino from the area, and a lot of black pepper, and it was called amatriciana in bianco or gricia (griscia in local dialect), from Griciano, another village not far from Amatrice.
Gricia is a dish that talks about a culture, a land and a lifestyle. Shepherding required energetic meals while the constant movements called for food that could keep for long periods of time without spoiling: aged cheese, dry pasta and cured meat. It became famous in Rome and in time, it started to be associated with the Eternal City as a “traditional roman dish”, prepared the old way in many osterie. The recipe, however, is so simple that it can be easily made at home. The key to success is finding the right ingredients. Once you are set with that, be ready for moments of pure pleasure.
Pasta alla Gricia
Bring plenty of water to a boil. In the meantime, heat the oil in a large saucepan. Cut the guanciale in strips and add it to the hot oil, fry until crispy and translucent. Remove from the heat. When the water is boiling, add salt and the spaghetti and cook until very al dente (two-three minutes before the suggested cooking time). Drain with a slotted spoon and add to the guanciale, together with a spoonful of hot cooking water. Put the saucepan back on high heat. Saute the pasta a few times, then add the pecorino and incorporate it with the sauce. Grind plenty of black pepper on the pasta, saute once more until combined. Serve immediately with some more grated pecorino and black pepper to taste.