by David Downie
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The inimitable guanciale — Italian “jowl bacon” — made for over half a century by the Carilli brothers in Rome is dead. Long live Rome’s guanciale!
Purists insist that without guanciale it’s impossible to make the true versions of the pasta sauces carbonara (olive oil, butter or lard, eggs, black pepper, pork jowl, and pecorino romano), gricia (subtract the eggs and black pepper, add hot chili and wine), or Food Wine Rome (add tomatoes to gricia).
But guanciale also finds its way onto bruschetta and into soups as well as myriad other pasta sauces, vegetable medleys, frittatas, poultry, beef, and pork. To my knowledge, the only course of a Roman meal in which guanciale does not appear is dessert.
“C’ho passione! C’ho passione!” — “I’m passionate, I’m passionate!” sang white-haired pork butcher Salvatore Carilli when I interviewed him a few years back. When I asked him about the trade his family has been in for more generations than he can tell me, with paternal pride, the wiry and excitable Carilli, the eldest at 72 of three butcher brothers, thrust a wizened, pepper-dusted, triangular two-kilo hog jowl into my hands. He had cured it in dry salt and air-dried it for months.
Salvatore was in his seventies at the time, the eldest of three brothers, all butchers. The family has been in the trade for more generations than he could tell me. We were standing in the cool, tiled interior of the Carilli shop on the via di Torre Argentina, a few blocks from the Pantheon. The shop, which is named simply Carilli and run by Salvatore and two of his brothers, was packed. Until it closed recently, since Roman food-lovers plotted the Pantheon’s location in relation to Carilli, not the other way around. The small, outwardly unremarkable place run by Salvatore and his two brothers was my favorite source of Rome’s most traditional cured pork products, foremost among them guanciale.
Romans are mad for jowls, consuming colossal quantities of them both at home and in traditional trattorias, whose rafters used to be strung with the wizened triangles.
The good news: though the Carilli clan are no longer in the business, the making and eating of guanciale remains a preternaturally Central Italian institution.
What’s in a name? A lot: guancia means “cheek” or “jowl” in Italian, and guanciale means both “hog jowl” and “pillow” (because you lay your cheek on it). Guanciale is the object of a food cult in Rome and much of central Italy. In the Abruzzi, it’s called guanciola; in Umbria and parts of Lazio, it’s barbazza, as in barba, “beard.”
Unlike prosciutto and pancetta, Italian guanciale has never received USDA approval and cannot be imported into the United States. Partly that’s because the thymus and other glands in the jowl are thought to pose trichinosis and tuberculosis risks. Besides, jowls contain glands that must be cut out. Most US jowls join other so-called “mystery meats” in salami, headcheese, pâtés, and sausages. The closest America gets to guanciale is the jowls that are cured like bacon and called “jowl bacon” in the South and Midwest and, if casual reports are to be trusted, in the Atlanta area, “hog mawls” around Atlanta.
Throughout central Italy, jowls are cured in salt, coated with pepper and sometimes other herbs or spices, then air dried. About 60 years ago, when Italian peasants still raised and slaughtered their own pigs and made their own pork products, guanciale and most other parts of the pig destined for preservation were dried in the home chimney and therefore inevitably smoked. They are rarely smoked now. Instead, the process is like the one used to make prosciutto and the most common guanciale substitute, which is pancetta – Italian bacon, made from the pancia or belly of the pig.
Compared with pancetta, guanciale is more gelatinous and sweet, imparting a buttery, almost gamey depth of flavor to whatever it’s cooked with. It is difficult to approximate this. Though unconventional, I find that adding juniper berries while I fry unsmoked American farmhouse bacon or pancetta imparts notes of jowl-like sweetness.
Beyond the delicious taste of guanciale, economic reasons once explained the its popularity of guanciale. Traditionally, it was cheaper than pancetta because, like pigs’ feet and offal, jowl was not considered a “noble” cut — it is now. Further, guanciale packs more flavor-punch than the same amount of pancetta, so you use less. Guanciale is two to three inches thick, and its triangular shape tapers to a tip so that the thin, tapering tip of the triangle is easy to pierce and string up. This facilitates storage and transport: even a lowly herder or charcoal burner could attach it to his stick-and-bundle, and hang it safely from a tree or tent.
Many Romans claim the combination of great flavor, cheapness and portability explains the origin of the sauces carbonara, gricia, and amatriciana. All three originate with roving mountain folk.
Copyright David Downie 2011
Quiet Corners of Rome (Alison Harris) is the author of Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome, and Food Wine Rome (a complete food- and wine-lover’s guide to the city); his latest book about Rome is Quiet Corners of Rome (over 50 silent, serene, often secret corners of the city). All three volumes are illustrated by color photographs by Alison Harris.