• So-phia so good; A lesson in Carbonara...

    Everyone remembers their first Sophia Loren film. I'll rephrase, most men remember their first Sophia Loren film. Whether it was alongside the great Mastroianni or directed by De Sica, you'd begin to realise that the fiery Neapolitan was equally versatile and hard to forget.

    Loren is not just an actress, she is a symbol of the Italian "je ne sais quoi" (although that's a French idiom).  Whilst she has her unforgettable demeanour and is nationally symbolic, she is also credited, by many, as the person that brought another Italian symbol to the wider world, Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

    It was whilst Loren was filming the classic 1960 film, "La Ciociara/Two Women" that she stumbled across the recipe. Departures magazine quote the famous story; 'Whilst filming in the mountains a few hours from Rome, the crew came upon a group of carbonai  (coal diggers) who offered to prepare the dish for them. The director, Vittorio De Sica, and Loren had second helpings, and she returned the next day to take notes as the men assembled the dish. (An accomplished home cook, Loren claims the recipe is verbatim. But while the results are first-rate, her rendition calls for cream—an addition most carbonara connoisseurs would not abide.)'

    Sophia Loren and Carbonara, two of Italy's finest...
    So what is the true history behind Italy's second favourite export (after Loren) and should we really be adding cream?

    Origin; Romans of Testaccio, carbonai and American GI's

    In it's most basic of  forms, it's not too hard to guess what goes into a good carbonara, a "proper" carbonara. Eggs, pancetta or guanciale, ground pepper and pecorino Romano.

    The Testaccio neighbourhood of Rome is credited with a dish called unto e uova (fat and eggs). This could be considered the first incarnation of carbonara. Importantly, the dish represents the peasant food of previous generations, bringing together pasta (in this case penne not spaghetti) and two other ingredients to make enough to last a whole meal as food was scarce.

    Whilst we know i carbonai gave Loren her first taste of the dish, documents show that a dish, very similar to unto e uova was popular as early as late 19th century being featured in mountainside restaurants near Rome. This area, geographically near the biggest congregation of coal diggers is the birthplace of the of many folklores about i carbonai within Italian history. The unto e uova in this case would be cooked using guanciale, a more flavoursome cut of fat.

    But one of my 'favourite' tales about la carbonara involves the American GI's in ally occupied Italy. Apparently, they brandished their rations of bacon and eggs to a neighbourhood, in return, instead of receiving a lynching, the neighbourhood got together and prepared the ingredients with a little of the local cheese, giving the American GI's and townspeople a recipe which has become the dish we have today. Yet no one can describe where they got the name of the dish from... 

    To cream or not to cream, that is the question?

    The basic answer is no. Cream deserves as much place in a carbonara as pets in clothes; it may seem like a good idea but after a minute you know, something, somewhere, isn't quite right.

    Cream was considered very much a luxury ingredient in the late 19th Century. If the story of i carbonai bares any truth, then packing ingredients to last weeks at a time, cream would have been the worst choice to take into the mountains as well. Cream in carbonara seems to have been included because most cooks wouldn't have been used to using the pasta's own cooking water to thicken the sauce; the sauce that most carbonara fans actually love. Maybe it's appearance of a creamy texture and glossy velour inspired some chefs to use it, and then proclaim that's the way to do it, but historically, there is no indication in it's evolution from unto e uova to creating la carbonara. (And you've guessed it, but my friend, yes her, Nigella, loves to douse the dish in "double cream" "white wine" and "nutmeg". Heaven forbid she did an Italian cookbook... or TV series...)

    "Un matrimonio Italiano/Marriage Italian Style" was my first Sophia Loren film. Forever repeated on a local Neapolitan TV station it tells a complicated story of infedelity, betrayal, marriage, and illegal children. My first ever carbonara was at Cichetto in Rome when I was six; salty, creamy and coated in pepper, a masterpiece if any, of Italian cuisine. Sophia Loren to Italian cinema is the carbonara to Italian cooking. Loved by everyone, known everywhere in the world. 

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