Life Food & Drink

Thursday 12 December 2019

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Spaghetti alla carbonara
Spaghetti alla carbonara

Sometimes dishes evolve from different circumstances. My favourite example of this is pasta alla carbonara. This is a dish that was made by the charcoal burners who gave it its name.

Before gas was commonplace in Italian kitchens, charcoal was the cooking fuel. Because Italy is so heavily populated and cultivated, forests are largely confined to the high mountains.

The charcoal burners would take their mules in a caravan to the high places in the early spring and would spend the summer coppicing the hornbeam, birch and beech.

All through the summer they made piles of faggots, which would then be covered with sods and fired so that the combustion would take place with no air and therefore no flame, carbonising the wood. In the autumn they returned to the valley, mules laden with charcoal for sale.

Life in the mountains was spartan, and pasta alla carbonara evolved from this way of life. One pot, one fire, dried pasta and salt-cured sausage defined the dish. In its pure mountain form, the pasta was boiled and drained, eggs and chopped sausage were tossed into the pot and the pasta was stirred.

That's it. If you're an Italian charcoal burner, that may be fine, but in a modern kitchen the dish can be refined a little and, I think, improved.


500g spaghetti

4 egg yolks

½ eggshell of water

Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan (about 30g)

4 thick slices pancetta or collar of bacon,

(about 200g)

75ml olive oil


While a 500g packet of spaghetti is on the boil — or use a cut pasta such as penne if you find spaghetti hard to handle — beat the four egg yolks well with half an eggshell of water, some freshly ground black pepper and the freshly grated Parmesan.

If the Parmesan thickens it up, add a little more water. These days, purists insist on guanciale, which is air-cured pig's cheek, but if you can't find that then cube a little pancetta — or, at a pinch, collar of bacon — and fry it lightly in olive oil over a medium heat.

When the spaghetti is cooked, drain it and return it to the pot. Pour in the pancetta and oil from the pan, stir, then remove the pot from the heat and pour in the egg mixture. Stir once more. If you're quick doing this, the residual heat of the spaghetti will cook the egg and the dish is made.

In America, the UK and Ireland, this dish is unfailingly made with cream, which couldn't be more wrong. If you beat the egg yolks and Parmesan well, you'll find that it's creamy enough. The only mistakes you can make are to keep the pot of pasta on the heat while you add the egg mixture, and if you've used egg whites as well as the yolks then your carbonara will be far from creamy.

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