We spent longer in Italy than we do in most places we visit. We also ate so well! It seemed a shame to leave our Italian travel recipe posts at just one. So this week, in honour of the time we spent in Verona and our visit to the opera in the Arena, we’re making traditional spaghetti carbonara – the way the Italians do.
Keeping on the theme, we’ve picked another pasta. However, while spaghetti bolognese is from Bologna (as the name suggests), spaghetti carbonara is actually originally from Rome. I will always associate it with Verona though.
The origins of spaghetti carbonara
While the exact origins of the dish are unclear, it definitely came from the Lazio region, around Rome.
The dish itself is old, but the name carbonara is more recent. Carbonara is derived from carbonaro, which means charcoal burner in Italia. So think it was this may indicate that it was originally made for charcoal workers. It is sometimes called “coal miner’s spaghetti” for that reason. Perhaps it was even created as a tribute for the Carbonari, or Charcoal Men, a secret society prominent in the 19th century.
Strangely, it does not appear officially until 1950. It was then a dish that American sought by American soldiers following the Allied liberation of Rome.
Why traditional spaghetti carbonara will always remind me of Verona
No , I didn’t first have traditional spaghetti carbonara in Verona. I had it in Germany, while studying in Mannheim, where I was taught to cook it by my Italian friends Mateo and Nicola.
While I was studying in Mannheim, I spent quite a bit of time with a group of international students, at least at the start. Mateo was from Milano and Nicola was from Verona. When they returned from spending the Easter break with their families in Italy, they brought back the ingredients for traditional spaghetti carbonara and decided to make it for us.
The recipe is simple and does not take long to make. Still, they argued about each step. How many eggs would they need, would that be enough cheese, was the ‘bacon’ crispy enough. Note: they did not argue about whether to include cream in the dish.
It was quite simply delicious. I have it every time we go to Verona and think of them.
Correct spaghetti etiquette
Mateo and Nicola argued about whether we needed a spoon, too.
In Italy, adults will not use a spoon to eat spaghetti. Instead, they will twirl their fork against the bottom of the plate or bowl until there is a nice mouthful on the fork. Only children will use a spoon to help twirl their spaghetti; adults should only use a spoon when the pasta is in a broth.
Nicola did not want us to be given spoons. We were adults and we were not members of the uneducated lower class (at least that is what I remember of his arguments in rapid-fire Italian). Mateo argued that Nicola should not be too hard on us all because we were not Italians so what would we know?
If my memory serves me correctly, we were given the choice of whether we wanted a spoon, with Nicola casting his judgment if we did.
Carbonara sauce from the supermarket
When you buy pre-made carbonara sauce from the supermarket, it is often quite gluggy. While it can be quite tasty, thickening agents such as cornflour are often used to get a consistency that is quite unlike traditional spaghetti carbonara.
Supermarket carbonara sauce also includes cream. Sainsbury’s carbonara sauce (UK) and Latina Fresh carbonara (Australia) both include cream. The sauces are described as, “A sauce with smoked bacon, cheese and double cream.”
Carbonara sauce with cream is more like an alla panna sauce (literally, with cream). Traditional Italian carbonara sauce does not contain cream.
Tips for your traditional spaghetti carbonara
Use freshly-grated Parmesan cheese. Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard Italian cheese made with cow milk and aged 12-36 months.
As we learnt during our cooking class, the name refers to where it is made – around the cities of Parma and in the Reggio Emilia. Both Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are protected designations of origin (PDO or DOP), which means that cheeses may only be called Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano if they are made in the region according to traditional methods.
Use fresh eggs – if you are worried about eggs and salmonella poisoning, you can use liquid eggs (they are not available in Germany so I can make no guarantees about the result).
Cook your spaghetti in ample salted water until it is al dente, or ‘to the tooth’. This means that it is still a little firm to the bite – firm and slightly chewy still. Cooking time will differ so read the instructions on the packet you choose.
If you can, get thicker cut bacon, remove the rind and chop it very finely (pieces >5mm wide). Precut fine bacon pieces also work well; if you can, get some that are not too fatty.
It does not really belong in traditional spaghetti carbonara, at least not the way Italians make it. However, if you have a little (single or pouring) cream left in a container, feel free to add it to your carbonara sauce.
Try fresh, traditional spaghetti carbonara
While this recipe may not be the carbonara you are used to, I promise you it is delicious. It is simple to make and only requires as much time as you need to boil the water and cook the spaghetti.
It’s perfect, whether you are remembering a trip to Verona or Rome or dreaming of going to Italy.
Why not make some traditional spaghetti carbonara today?
Traditional Spaghetti Carbonara
- 250 g spaghetti
- 4 eggs
- 100 g freshly grated parmesan
- 125 g bacon finely cut
- salt and pepper to taste
- Cook the spaghetti in boiling water according to the instructions of the packet. Remove approx. 60 mL of the water (one soup ladle) from the pan and set aside. Drain the rest and keep the spaghetti warm.
- Fry the bacon until just browned.
- Place eggs, cooking water and parmesan in a bowl and whisk until well combined and pale. Season with salt and pepper as desired.
- Add the bacon to the egg mix, stirring as it is added, then pour the egg mix over the pasta and mix through. Serve and enjoy!