The Key Ingredients: Pecorino Romano & Guanciale
Do you know what the 4 iconic Roman pasta dishes are? Though they all have the same core ingredients, they each have their own personality, story, and meaning.
- Cacio e pepe: Pecorino Romano + black pepper
- Gricia: Pecorino Romano + guanciale + black pepper
- Amatriciana: Pecorino Romano + guanciale + tomato sauce + black pepper
- Carbonara: Pecorino Romano + guanciale + egg + black pepper
To put it in a more visual way, picture an upsidedown Y. Now let's introduce the 2 key ingredients of Roman cuisine, the heart and soul of these dishes: pecorino cheese and guanciale cured pork.
The simplest of the Roman pastas is cacio e pepe which uses pecorino only. Add guanciale to that dish and you get gricia. Add tomato sauce to pasta alla gricia and you get amatriciana. If you add egg to gricia you get carbonara. As simple (and delicious) as that!
Historically, the pastures and farmland around Rome were predominantly used to rear sheep and pigs. This helps to explain why so much of Roman cuisine is based around 2 key ingredients, pecorino sheep-milk cheese and cured pork products. These small shepherd villages were self-sufficient, eating their own produce that were from the surrounding land, forming the roots of simplicity found in Roman cooking and its focus on local products.
Pecorino Romano, Rome's Sheep Cheese
Pecorino Romano is a sharp, savory, aged cheese and it is the key ingredient in all of the 4 Roman pastas. Derived from the Italian word for sheep, pecora, pecorino simply means any cheese made from sheep, or ewe’s, milk. The variety named Pecorino Romano is a hard sheep cheese that has been aged for at least 8 months, allowing the distinctive flavors to develop. Usually covered with a black-coated exterior, it has a brittle, crumbly, texture making it perfect for grating. The sharp, salty taste of pecorino helps not only to season a dish but also adds an extra flavor dimension, while the creamy texture means it will help to thicken sauces when combined with starchy pasta water.
The history of Pecorino Romano dates back over 2000 years when the ancient Romans produced sheep milk cheese across central Italy. As an aged cheese, Pecorino Romano can be stored for a long time without going bad which, along with its calorie content, made it the ideal addition to the rations that the Roman Legionaries received as they marched through the empire.
Before the unification of Italy in 1861, food in Italy was strictly regional as products and ingredients were made, sold, and utilized in their place of origin. This meant that, as the region of Lazio concentrated predominantly on the production of sheep (not cow) cheese, Pecorino Romano earned a fundamental place in the cuisine of its capital, Rome. After the late 19th century, the commercial opportunities afforded by unification saw the production of Pecorino Romano spread to the farmlands of Tuscany and Sardinia.
Did you know? Nowadays over 90% of the production takes place in the Italian island of Sardinia and authentic Pecorino Romano, by law, can only be produced in the region of Sardinia, Lazio, and the province of Grosseto in southern Tuscany.
The production method of the cheese has remained the same throughout the centuries and still today the wheels are salted by hand to build up the unique and intense flavor.
Guanciale, Rome's Cured Pork Jowl
It's not pancetta, it's not bacon, it's guanciale and it is one of Rome's most local ingredients. Guanciale, which comes from the Italian word for 'cheek', guancia, is a cured meat prepared from the pig’s jowl. See our bonus recipe for homemade guanciale!
Did you know? Pancetta is one of Italy's famous ingredients and it comes from the belly, in Italian pancia, of the pig. It is a seasoned, salt-cured meat. Bacon is made from various cuts, mainly pork belly or back, and it is a smoke-cured meat. Bacon is not a traditional ingredient of Italian cuisine.
Guanciale is the pork jowl that is trimmed as a triangle or a square and then salted in sea salt for a few days. The meat is then brushed to remove the salt, it is seasoned with spices and ground black pepper, then aged for about 60-70 days in temperature and humidity controlled areas until it loses approximately 30% of its original weight.
The fat is the most valuable part of the guanciale. Cheek fat is a little more consistent and harder than belly fat or back fat and, when cooked, melts away giving great depth of flavor to the dishes and sauces it is used in.