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Guanciale - so trendy you can't find it

"Guancia means cheek, and guanciale are the salt-cured pork jowls that hang like pepper-dusted paddles above salumerie (deli) counters in shops and on Roman market stalls." Rachel Roddy

Inspired by a brief article in The Guardian newsletter, by British chef Jacob Kenedy on his favourite ingredient, I was going to do a post on guanciale and carbonara. For guanciale was his favourite ingredient and carbonara is one of those classic dishes that uses it. However, as I started looking into it all I decided there was just too much to do both, so today I am just going to concentrate on guanciale. Carbonara coming some time soon.

The article caught my eye because although dimly aware that this was pork cheek, and that it was a trendy ingredient that seemed to be popping up everywhere, I also knew that it was hard to find. Like all those other aggravatingly trendy and unobtainable ingredients like pomegranate molasses, Aleppo chillies and nduja. And like all of them, when I came to look for recipes that used it I couldn't find nearly as many as I thought there were. Somehow it had seemed to me it was everywhere, but apparently not.

Obviously all the chefs that do use it must be aware of how difficult to find it is, because they always say you can use pancetta or even bacon instead. Even authentically obsessed Italian chefs admit that it is difficult to find. And on that point I just had a quick look and you can get it online of course - it will cost you around $5-6.00 for 100g. Then I looked further and find that the IGA in Templestowe - a next-door suburb has it. So next time I'm passing there I should have a look. Maybe they have other things too. Maybe my local delicatessen has it though I doubt it because it doesn't really seem to have a lot of things that the supermarkets don't. I suppose all this goes to show that if you want something badly enough you can find it, if you are prepared to travel a little and pay out a lot.

But I digress. What is guanciale? Well, as I said, it's the cheek of the pig - so somewhat limited in supply I guess anyway. Pancetta - its nearest relative comes from the belly. So there is the first difference and as you can see from the comparison at left, there is much more fat in guanciale and indeed according to Rachel Roddy (and others) its the fat that is key.

"the fat of guanciale has a thick, almost sweet and delicate flavour, which melts into a deeply flavoured and seasoned cooking medium." Rachel Roddy

It's a Lazio and Abruzzo speciality and is often used as the fat source in recipes instead of olive oil or butter.

The other difference is in the way they are cured. Pancetta is simply cured with salt for a few days and you will find lots of recipes on the net for home-cured pancetta. Guanciale on the other hand has other ingredients - one site said, pepper, sage, garlic and rosemary - another specified other herbs, but the pepper seemed to be a bit constant. And it's dried for 3 months.

You also tend to buy pancetta in thin slices whereas guanciale is sold in chunks because you mostly use it in chunks. When I come to the carbonara post I will include a Jamie video in which he shows you the difference.

So how do you use guanciale? Well if you are going to be traditional look no further than Rome and its big four:

"guanciale is still a favourite in Rome and Lazio, its rich flavour and binding power the mortar in many traditional dishes, and especially the quartet of classic Roman pastas – guanciale, pecorino and egg carbonara; pecorino and black pepper cacio e pepe; guanciale, tomato and pecorino amatriciana; and the pre‑tomato ancestor of amatriciana, the lesser spotted but greatly loved amatriciana bianca, or gricia." Rachel Roddy

Well maybe the big three as cacio e pepe does not have any fat content at all, so no guanciale.

Pasta alla gricia, (otherwise known as Pasta amatriciana bianca) the least known of the three is really cacio e pepe with the addition of guanciale, and often made with different, larger pasta with holes. Rachel Roddy, whose version this is, likes the larger rigatoni because the guanciale nestles inside the pieces of pasta to give an extra surprise, as well as its fat adding flavour.

"the happy meeting of melted fat and grated pecorino on the surface of the pasta itself, which – with the help of some starchy cooking water and a toss – results in a slightly emulsified and creamy sauce. " Rachel Roddy

The greatest and most controversial though is the carbonara:

"I always use the recipe for carbonara as a kind of manifesto because there’s no bacon, no parmesan, no cream and no extra egg yolks; all the things British people think you put in, but you don’t. The key tastes are pepper, pecorino romano and the porky guanciale." Jacob Kenedy

There exists so much controversy over this dish, that I leave anything further to say to my future post. That's his version in the picture by the way.

On the Master Class website I found a rather more general list of things you can do with guanciale:

  1. Baked: You can cut guanciale into thin strips and bake it in the oven until it is crispy, like bacon. Simply oil a sheet with oil, and bake in your oven at 395 degrees Fahrenheit for fifteen minutes.

  2. Sauteéd: Italian dishes may pair sautéed guanciale with hearty fava beans or bitter greens like broccoli rabe. Simply cook your beans or greens on their own, then sauté with guanciale in a pan.

  3. Pan-fried: Each of the most famous Italian pasta dishes that use guanciale as a key ingredient (spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’amatriciana, and pasta alla gricia) require you to pan-fry it in a pan until the fat renders. The rendered fat yields a savory oil perfect for coating pasta and flavoring other ingredients. Master Class

All of which is sort of obvious really, so I decided to look further for other ideas. After all I certainly had it in my head that I had seen it referenced a lot of late. So first of all I searched my cookbooks, which was difficult because either guanciale did not exist in any of the recipes or the indexes were just not up to it. I suspect that it is only in the most recent recipe books that you will find it at all. My Italy the Beautiful Cookbook by Lorenza de Medici does not mention it, neither does the Italian Food Safari book and perhaps most surprisingly of all The Silver Spoon, supposedly the bible of Italian cooking, ignores it altogether although it has dozens of recipes for pancetta. Does this mean that it has been adapted for non-Italians, or that even the Italians find it difficult to get hold of - or even worse - do not know about it. Nothing from Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Nigella, Mietta, Ottolenghi ... I was sure I had seen something, somewhere from Ottolenghi. So it was back to the net.

I'll begin with this Three cheese tortellini with porcini, guanciale and basilico sauce from because it's a real oddity. It is obviously aimed at the 'ordinary', time poor and possibly uninterested home cook because the tortellini are bought ready-made from your supermarket, as is the basilico sauce - in a jar. But there are also porcini mushrooms in the mix - admittedly available in the supermarket - if you hunt around a bit - but a bit exotic, and guanciale. It definitely specifies guanciale and that is definitely not available in your supermarket. Odd. I noticed only 11 people had downloaded the recipe.

Rachel Roddy who had talked so eloquently about guanciale had one more recipe to share - Pasta alla pecoraria - a cheesy concoction with pecorino and ricotta. The pecorino and ricotta are supposed to be made from sheep's milk - hence the name which means Shepherd's pasta.

Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater though came up with the goods. Jamie has one recipe in his Jamie Cooks Italy book called Mixed meat ragù, which is a long slow cook of chicken, sausage, pork ribs and guanciale. Alas the recipe is not online and it's rather too long to reproduce here. Suffice to say that it also includes porcini mushrooms, garlic, rosemary, onions, celery, fennel, tomatoes and white wine. A rich and satisfying dish which would feed a crowd I imagine. I guess the guanciale is a relatively unimportant ingredient, but I'm sure that it contributes that extra layer of flavour.

Jamie is an enthusiastic user of guanciale and has two more recipes online - Beautiful courgettes and Tortiglioni - with peas and mint in the mix. My other guanciale hero is Nigel Slater who offers Orzo with guanciale and kale and a rather luscious and interesting sounding Polpettone puddings with guanciale and prunes. I might try that one. I'm guessing he has other recipes hidden here and there as well but I couldn't find them today. And last but not least delicious. Magazine from where comes Giovanni Pilu's Nettle cacio e pepe with guanaciale - definitely not traditional - and, if you are into oysters - Coffin Bay oysters Florentine with guanciale from Nino Zoccali.

I think the most interesting question I still have in my head from all of this, is - is this really an ancient, traditional Italian ingredient that every Italian knows about, or is it a recent trendy thing derived from a very local speciality? And do they really have it in my nearest IGA store?


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