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A Recipe for Authenticity

Nobody ever put food on the table by worrying about the notion of authenticity… or did they? Gordon Giles on authentic culinary performance.

Here we have a recipe for Spaghetti alla Carbonara – a Roman dish, whose flavour is owed mainly to the ingredient known both to us and Italians as pancetta. Camisa explains:

“Pancetta … looks like a large fatty salame. The pork is cured and spiced and then rolled up into a salame shape. It is not smoked as many people think, and is not bacon – in fact it has a totally different flavour from bacon… it is essential in Spaghetti alla Carbonara.”

Pancetta, then, is essential for a Carbonara sauce, which means that if your sauce lacks it, it is not Carbonara. However, pancetta is not that easy to get hold of in this country (we do not even have a word for it), and so an ‘authentic’ carbonara dish is rather rare. What should we do about this?

We might say that the best policy is to leave Spaghetti alla Carbonara to the Italians, and not even try to cook it, since any attempt made without the correct ingredients would be inauthentic. Or we might decide to consult a local pig farmer, or butcher, and ask him to cure some for us, in which case we could lay claim to be ‘doing the right thing’. If we can get hold of genuine Italian pancetta, or else procure some elsewhere, we have solved our problem.

This notion of authentic Italian cookery is open to question, however. We have insisted that pancetta be used, and with some effort we have procured some. But we must still negotiate the other ingredients. Cream, for instance, is required. This, we are told, must be single cream, and we can buy it in any supermarket. But I have been taught how to make Carbonara sauce while staying in Rome, and I happen to know that in Italy one can buy ‘cooking cream’, which is not the same as single cream – it is somewhat thicker, and is invariably sold in UHT form. I have never seen it on sale in this country. Elizabeth Camisa either thinks that single cream should be used (perhaps her family do in fact use it); or she tacitly acknowledges the unavailability of cooking cream, and believes that the difference made by single cream is indiscernible. Or she may even believe that single cream is (or tastes) better. If she does think it tastes better, then we might ask whether that is her family’s opinion, or her own personal view. We have a slightly different problem to that with the pancetta, because we also have a difference of opinion. Camisa and I are both English (she having married an Italian), although she knows more about Italian cookery than I do. If we disagree, she might defer to her husband, whose methods she probably adopted in the first place. I suspect that we would ultimately agree that the difference in taste brought about by different creams – if there is any – is minimal, and may not be perceptible to anyone other than connoisseurs of Italian pasta dishes. On the other hand, we might both agree that pancetta is essential, and that bacon will not do. To put it differently, one might say that Carbonara can be made with single cream, or cooking cream, and that neither affects the status of the dish. This is not to say that the cream is dispensable, for we would still want to say that cream is a necessary ingredient of Carbonara, even if we are not as specific about its nature as we might be for pancetta.

We are told to use egg yolks – hence to discard the white of the egg. This, no doubt, affects the thickness and consistency of the sauce. If we were to use the whites as well, we might still produce something which we could call Carbonara, but we would run the risk of turning the sauce into scrambled egg when we stir it. But again, we might wonder if the thick and runny consistency we associate with carbonara is necessary,and whether can get away with using the whole egg in our sauce. If we can succeed in keeping this consistency, then we have an even stronger case for keeping the whites, since it would save the bother of extracting the yolk.

Parmesan cheese, although available in this country, is expensive, and is usually not as fresh as that which can be bought in Italy. It can be bought in a ready-grated form, although our recipe forbids its use. Presumably, Cheddar, Brie, or even Cheshire cheese are also inappropriate, in spite of the latter’s soft texture which makes it convenient for cheese sauces. If we use Cheshire cheese, is it Carbonara? The purists would say that it is not, or at least that it is not proper or genuine Carbonara.

Olive oil is available everywhere, but there is olive oil and olive oil, as they say. Oil, like wine (and parmesan), is regulated and graded by the Italian government. The olives are generally crushed more than once, and the oil which comes from the ‘first pressing’ is stronger and more transparent than later pressings, and since it is reckoned to be of higher quality it is more expensive. Cold pressed oil is good for salads, and, it might be argued, should not be used for cooking, since oil of a lower grade will suffice. Camisa, in her recipe, does not specify what kind of olive oil to use, and her specified quantity (one tablespoonful) is hardly precise. The oil that one uses for frying affects the taste of the dish, but there is likely to be a difference in flavour between pancetta fried in a generous spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil, and pancetta fried in oil produced under a supermarket label. Camisa has this to say:

“Try to experiment with a few oils to give you some idea of the different flavours and strengths… However, if you do not like the taste of olive oil you can substitute a good vegetable oil in some of the recipes – but never use anything other than olive oil in salad dressing or mayonnaise.”

She is not very fussy about olive oils, although I doubt that she would be unable to tell the difference in flavour among them. Perhaps she is willing to allow that a dish can have various differently flavoured presentations, each of which is acceptable (and authentic). The implication here though, is that one can play about with one’s oils (even to the extent of not actually using olive oil) but not with the meat, or the cheese.

We might make some comment about the use of salt and pepper. No quantities are given. Presumably, a basic knowledge of seasoning as it pertains to cookery is assumed. If one does not know what kind of quantities are required, then perhaps one should not be attempting Carbonara in the first place.

It is also assumed that we know how to cook pasta. Pasta cooking is often flippantly described as an art (which strictly it is not), but a degree of skill and knowledge are required. The techniques can be learnt by reading Camisa’s book, but the skill does not come so easily. Pasta cooking is undoubtedly what Plato would call a technè which must also be combined with episteme, or know-how. The epistemai are more akin to fields of knowledge, such as the different sciences, rather than general knowledge, or the knowledge of facts. Not only is the notion of knowing about a field of knowledge included in the term episteme; the notion of knowing how is also involved. Thus, if we say, in Plato’s terms, that someone is knowledgeable (epistemon) about pasta cookery, we are saying that she knows many facts about pasta cooking; and that she also knows how to cook it – that is, she is competent.

Although the method is important, there is by no means only one way of doing it. It is possible not to follow the time-honoured practices of Italian pasta cooks, of course, either through ignorance or willfulness. One might not have a big enough pan, or might not want to wait for a gallon of water to boil. Pasta which is cooked in too little water tends to stick, although with care this can be avoided. I doubt that pasta actually tastes different if cooked in less water, but the chances of culinary disaster are increased. Different pastas vary in the length of time they need to cook. In my experience, the flat pastas, such as farfalle or lasagne take less time than spaghetti, but more importantly, fresh pasta cooks in about three minutes, whereas dried pasta takes eight to ten minutes. This is useful knowledge, and the pasta used has a pronounced effect of the meal. Fresh pasta is invariably tastier (some dried pasta is in fact tasteless), and the kind of flour used, and quantity of egg also affects the taste, texture and cooking time of the pasta. Not only are there different shapes of pasta, but there are different kinds. Camisa specifies spaghetti (could Fettucine alla Carbonara be authentic?), presumably because it is traditional. It is also traditionally acceptable to substitute one type of spaghetti for another, and although fresh pasta is generally preferred to dried pasta, very few Italians eat fresh pasta all the time. So again, we find that there is a certain leeway allowed concerning the pasta used. Perhaps it does not matter what kind of pasta one uses, so long as one cooks it properly (and different pastas require slightly different techniques).

Having mentioned some of the problems with individual parts of our recipe, we can consider some difficulties we encounter when we add them together. Problems with the individual ingredients may be insignificant singly, but they can be compounded. We may be allowed to break one or two of the accepted conventions for cooking Carbonara, but there presumably comes a point when we want to call what we have produced by a different name. We cannot call any dish we like Spaghetti alla Carbonara, because to do so makes a nonsense of the name and recipe; and is misleading to anyone who wants to know what to expect when they order it in a restaurant.

In order to prevent confusion, we might take an opposing view and insist that in spite of the apparent advantages gained by being flexible, we should be stricter about what constitutes Carbonara sauce. We might take the view that Carbonara must contain pancetta, extra virgin oil, egg yolks alone, and cooking cream, for instance. On the other hand, we may make the same kind of stipulation, but prefer to say that Carbonara must contain single cream and a later pressed oil. This of course may lead to argument – since we now have two ‘definitive’ sets of ingredients. The less liberal we are concerning methods and ingredients, the more people we are likely to disagree with (although we need not be tremendously concerned about this).

The two extreme positions are not satisfactory. We cannot allow a great deal of licence, nor is a categorical stipulation very helpful, for it may be said that whatever we do, people will continue to call what they cook and eat Carbonara, whether we like it or not. Also, we might wonder what right we have to make such stipulations, given that we have not invented the dish ourselves.

When someone ‘follows a recipe’ for a dish of food, they can be said to have created it in one sense, but not in the sense that they have invented it. Spaghetti alla Carbonara is not attributed to any single creator (although other dishes such as Tournedos Rossini are attributable), and so we cannot even defer to a creator as some people want to do where a work of art is concerned. The way in which we prepare the dish has evolved, and it is by no means certain that the recipe of which we have various versions today is the same as the one which was ‘traditionally’ used. Even if the ingredients and methods appear to be the same, it is likely that the use of cream has changed with the development of ultra-high temperature preservation techniques. Since a dish has evolved through time, to state its ingredients and dictate its method of preparation is to fix it in time. The reason for the discrepancies among recipes for particular dishes may be attributable to this ‘fixing’. With any tradition comes variation, over time and distance, such that a common origin might be an important criterion. With many dishes, such an origin may not be traceable, or may be vague, but the origin may be sufficient. Spaghetti alla Carbonara, we are told, “is of Roman origin, and is popular all over Italy”. This might take us to Rome, with a view to asking an old Roman how he or she makes Carbonara. We might even go so far as to say that we ought only to eat Carbonara in Rome, because genuine Carbonara can only be made there, either because the best ingredients can only be obtained there (which is unlikely), or because we believe that being made in Rome is some kind of quality which only genuine Carbonara possesses. This is all very well, but has to meet the objection that it is at least theoretically possible – and probable – for a Carbonara sauce made in Rome to be indistinguishable from one made in Florence, Milan, or even London. The same kind of objection might be made to anyone who claims that genuine Carbonara must be made by an Italian: a French cook may be able to make a sauce that tastes the same. In answer, our ‘purist’ might say something to the effect that genuineness, or authenticity in these matters is not determined by the appearance of the substance (the taste), but by something else. However, this begs what else it might be determined by, when we have already found problems where ingredients and technique are invoked. We might say that the authenticity of a particular case is determined by specific facts (including facts about where it was made); or by some kind of spirit in which it was cooked and eaten. The former permits different kinds of authenticity, while the latter tends towards the invocation of a creator who never really existed. We cannot say that the aim to produce Carbonara is sufficient, because trying to do something is not a guarantee of success – nor should it be if we are to make any sense of the notion of ‘trying’.

We might still want to say that eating Carbonara in Rome is the only way to experience it, in virtue of the thoughts and sensations which accompany doing so. One might feel, for instance, that it tastes (imperceptibly) better when consumed in the open air in the Alban hills, but it might then be said that the aura surrounding the consumption of food is not an intrinsic part of the food. The pasta may seem to taste better (and in a sense that may be all that matters), but if we claim that it does, then we are falling into the trap we tried to avoid when we proposed that there could be two dishes which tasted the same, but which were not equally genuine, in that we are now basing our judgements on the experience we have, rather than on the source of that experience. It is also possible that the notion of genuineness is caused only in part by the pasta dish, and that although it may be true that one is consuming the dish in what may be called ‘natural surroundings’, the feeling of authenticity is caused by a knowledge of factors which are not included in the recipe. Camisa’s recipe does not seriously propose any Roman sunshine, nor is it a feature of the dish that we take a siesta afterwards, although to do so is a jolly good idea. A confusion exists here – between suggesting that something is a part of the genuine article; and saying that it improves the experience of its consumption. Listening to Resphigi’s Feste Romane while eating Carbonara may be advantageous in some way, but it makes the performance of the recipe no more or less authentic.

Perhaps in the end it does not matter how we do or do not define Spaghetti alla Carbonara, since it might be said that we know what kind of dish it is – we know well enough to say whether or nor we like it, and indeed in what form we prefer it. In the end, we may do best to think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘games’, which he describes in his Philosophical Investigations (65-7). Games, he says, have neither necessary nor sufficient features, yet we know what a game is, and know whether a particular activity is a game or not. When we eat something which is presented as Carbonara, we know whether we like it; and we know whether we believe it to be Carbonara, and it is presumably the case that the two are not linked. The aesthetic pleasure of taste is what we are ultimately after, and whether or not one is consuming the ‘genuine article’ is secondary to this. We do not, of course, eat the same food all the time; we all have our favourites, but for many reasons, such as health, practicality, expense and the tastes of others, we vary our diets, just as we vary the music we listen to and the company we keep. Where food is concerned variety is certainly the spice of life.

© The Rev'd Gordon J. Giles 2000

After a varied culinary, musical and philosophical career, Gordon Giles is now Succentor of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

To serve 4:

1lb spaghetti
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons single cream salt & freshly ground pepper
2 oz freshly grated parmesan
4 oz pancetta

1. Put on the water for the spaghetti, as the sauce only takes a few minutes to make.

2. While the spaghetti is cooking, cut the pancetta up into smallish pieces and add to a large heavy frying pan with the olive oil. Cook for a few minutes and then drain off most of the fat, leaving just a trace in the pan. Remove the pan from the heat.

3. Beat the egg yolks in a bowl and then add the cream, seasoning and half the cheese.

4. The spaghetti should be cooked by now; place the pan with the pancetta in it on a very low heat (as low as possible), add the drained spaghetti and stir.

5. Add the egg mixture, stirring all the time. The eggs will cook instantly in the hot pasta. Serve immediately with the rest of the parmesan.

[taken from The Fratelli Camisa Italian Cookbook: A Collection of Authentic Family Recipes, by Elizabeth Camisa, Penguin, 1989]


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