Continuing the mission to introduce my children to traditional Roman cuisine, I decided that Spaghetti Alla Carbonara was on the menu for dinner. Enthusiastic consumers of bacon and eggs on toast, I was keen to extend their repertoire with these staple ingredients. It struck me that if one travelled across the continent of Europe, one could eat a national variant of bacon, eggs and carbs from sunrise to sunset.
As with all simple dishes, the quality of the ingredients is essential, as there is nowhere for mediocre items to hide. Whereas in London this would have necessitated a trip to a specialist Italian deli for the pancetta at least, in Rome I strolled into a local Spar superette en route home from a tiring day of sightseeing. In even a small store on a nondescript side street, I found a variety of pancetta the likes of which I would not source in even the largest supermarket back home.
The man serving behind the deli counter paid serious attention to my request, in broken Italian, and set about explaining the culinary use for each pancetta. He suggested the one best suited to my needs and carefully cut it into small, glistening pieces of fat. I have never seen such a beautiful piece of pork, unadulterated in its destructive ability to poison the human heart. I could not wait to watch it melt over a medium heat.
We moved on to the formaggi and I discovered that this was to be no simple matter of thoughtlessly grating a piece of parmesan. My instructor patiently explained – for by now he had concluded that my grasp of Italian was no better than my rudimentary knowledge of cuisine – that for Carbonara, the preferred cheese was Provolone. That was unless the bambini would be eating. I indicated that indeed I intended to include them in this meal. This led to some shaking of the head and muttering about how to proceed. For if the children were to eat then pure Provolone would be too strong for young palates and must be mixed with parmesan. I assured him that the bambini in question was provolone proof and he looked at me with doubt-filled eyes while I nodded reassuringly. He showed me how much I would need for four, and proceeded to grate the cheese in an industrial sized contraption.
I thanked him for his instructions on how to cook the Carbonara, included in which was a directive to use bucatini, and moved on in search of half a dozen eggs. I circled the shop twice but no eggs were to be found. I returned to my mentor who did not seem surprised to see me, sceptical as he was about my qualifications to prepare what I had erroneously assumed to be a simple supper. I told him that there appeared to be no eggs in the store. He called a shop assistant who searched but could not find, and so the manager was hailed. At this point my shopping spree transformed into an operatic encounter.
A baritone shaped man barrelled out of the manager’s office.”There are no eggs in the store’ began the mezzo soprano assistant.
‘No eggs in the store?’ questioned the baritone.
‘No eggs in the store,’ replied the assistant.
‘No eggs in the store,’ agreed the tenor deli man.
‘No eggs in the store,’ concluded the manager.
‘The senora is making Carbonara’ wailed the deli counter tenor, warming to his theme. ‘How can she make Carbonara if there are no eggs!”
I was mesmerised by this passionate exchange on my behalf and realised that he was singing for my supper. If I did not find any eggs there would be none. Unlike my tenor friend I did not believe that fresh eggs would be magicked into my basket simply because I needed them. It was almost time for the stores to close.
‘Are there no eggs in your storage room?’ I squeaked.
‘There are no eggs in the store’ chorused the manager and the assistant.
I left the three staff to their libretto of recriminations and explanations of delayed delivery and hastened off in the hope of salvaging my dinner. I marvelled at the way in which a tiny domestic inconvenience could be elevated into an emotional crisis. I realised that the soap opera that is their President Berlosconi, provides Italians with daily dramatic sustenance. No wonder my children call him Biscotti.
I feared that there was not an egg to be found in all of Rome but at the last minute was handed a six- pack in a tiny deli a few doors down from our apartment. The assistant might well have wondered at my enthusiastic relief.
That evening, as we sat down to steaming bowls of the tastiest Carbonara, I pondered on a culture in which a man serving at a deli counter in a tiny shop not only knew how to prepare the dish we were eating, but cared enough to be concerned that I did it authentically. This was a man proud of his culinary heritage and equipped with the knowledge of how to elevate a simple dish to a memorable meal. The food on our plates was not only a private concern but a matter of civic pride in which all providers up the
food chain seem engaged.
‘Is there any more, mum?’ asked the kids.
‘There is if you can tell me what an egg is in Italian’.
‘There are no eggs in the store’ they chorused.
ALL PICTURES TAKEN BY MADELEINE MORROW
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