Some experiences are so ingrained in us as people that, without their details, a narrative of our lives is incomplete. One experience that punctuates our existence is food; specifically, the dishes we have eaten from childhood through to the present that have shaped our palates and memories, becoming part of our personal culture. They may be solitary – a dram of whisky from a never-washed flask for a deer stalker in the Scottish Highlands – or communal – a dollop of lamb curry on the plate of a teenager, returning from their first term at university to a loud family table.
The experiences comprise the physical act and a feeling above it; solitude for the hunter, homecoming for the student. What we consume and imbibe are experiential building blocks of our lives; food and drink are the physical anchors of the phenomena of memory and experience that make us who we are.
Will Self wrote on the topic in the January 2020 issue of Esquire. The World in a Stew: In praise of bouillabaisseis about his relationship with the French fish soup from his first epiphanic spoon to a rather less satisfying mouthful years later. He packs platefuls of cultural analysis into three pages on the dish, but I’m unsure what he argues, if his goal is to argue anything at all. He finishes by musing on the waiter who served him his latest bouillabaisse, bringing us into the present. The waiter comments that after years of smelling and serving bouillabaisse, it has lost its appeal. The soup, to the waiter, was quotidian, something he admits to still loving, but that has been transformed by life. “And this too, we must surely agree, is also what it is truly like,” Self concludes. Like seeing a universe in a grain of sand, a bowl of soup reflects back to us life in a spoonful.
I have never eaten bouillabaisse, but understand what Self means when talking about the soup: the thing above the food, the phenomena of it. And I have my own: spaghetti alla carbonara. This is mine and my girlfriend’s dish (she is hereafter referred to as the Quail). We have made it again and again, perfected the recipe within an inch of puritanism, and eaten it across continents and stages of our relationship. I ask myself: what do I mean when I say that carbonara is the dish punctuating the last five years of my life in a way that other food or drink has not. How has a simple dish of pasta become more than physical consumption and moved into the world of experience, memory. Through three points in time I can show what it is truly like.
My first memorable carbonara was in Rome. The Quail and I were staying in a second-story apartment just off the Campo de Fiori. The high-vaulted ceilings of the bedroom and the pokey kitchen and bathroom gave away that it was a papal residence, converted at some point to modern living.
It was the height of summer, the Italian week of Ferragosto, where metropoles leave the stultifying heat of cities behind and escape to the beach. Most of Rome remained open and we strolled through the quiet streets, making them ours as we went. We had just finished our first year of University, where we had met on the third night of fresher’s week, and this was our first holiday together. I had been to Rome before, but alone, spending two weeks testing my self-taught Italian. With a roadmap of the backstreets of the city – the best hidden churches and spots for an afternoon nap – etched into the recesses of my mind from my solo trip, I guided the Quail through architecture, art and, most importantly, food. We indulged like king and queen: thin, crispy pizzas from Ai Marmi or Pizzeria La Montecarlo; suppli and baccala on street corners in Trastevere; the first time tasting sparkling red wine, which tastes the same as white, at Roscioli; gelato after gelato after gelato which melted down our fingers.
It was a holiday of food, as Rome always is for us, and amongst all the indulgence one meal stands out. We had a friend in Rome, Ian, who studied with us at university. He grew up within the Aurelian walls, his parents working at the U.N. while he attended a high school full of international kids – the children of diplomats, ambassadors, non-government officials. Ian brought two friends around on a warm evening to conjure up a carbonara in the papal palace.
The Quail and I bought ingredients earlier at a Carrefour hidden behind the old façade of a Roman building. Glass sliding doors opened incongruously onto the ochre back street. Not being carbonara experts at the time, we bought packet pancetta lardons but were instructed, explicitly, by Ian to buy pecorino cheese. Novices, we vastly misjudged the quantity needed and ended up lugging a quarter-eaten block home, inadequately wrapped, in our suitcase. A lingering smell of Rome was left on our clothes.
Ian and his friends, Stefano and Chris, greeted us and the ingredients with equal enthusiasm. They rolled up their sleeves and pushed me aside. We had welcomed them into our home, it was their responsibility to cook. Quail and I opened the wine and stood to watch, young adults hosting a dinner party, drinking good red and watching the carnival unfold in front of us.
The water was on to boil and the spaghetti pack rested idly by. They all agreed to salt the water to the point of saturation, sale come il mare Ian said and puckered his face. There was no debate either around the meat, it was pre-packaged and pre-lardoned, nothing to trim or disagree about. Making the sauce however – the binding concoction of egg plus cheese – was a point of contestation.
Stefano argued that it was one whole egg for the dish and then an extra yolk for each diner. Chris through it should only be egg yolks, along the same principal of one for the dish and one for each diner. Ian moderated between the two, gesticulating wildly and speaking faster than my comprehensive abilities as the Quail and I exchanged glances. The decision went Stefano’s way, but the debate continued – what is the right consistency? Should one lightly pulse the eggs and cheese with a fork, barely mixing to create a thick lumpy texture, or whisk to the point of aeration where a light foam forms on the surface. Each chef took turns demonstrating their preferred method with the bowl, emphasising how their wrist action was unique. They ran out of time to debate anything else as the pasta was almost cooked – they couldn’t sin against culinary tradition by letting it go from al dente to overcooked.
So we sat, and we were served. Astoundingly simple, otherworldly delicious spaghetti alla carbonara, sweating in our warm apartment off the Campo de’ Fiori with all the windows open.
We drank wine and learned about each other’s lives over dinner and then moved on to Open Baladin, a nearby pub. The night became blurry with the craft beers consumed and then it was just Ian, me and the Quail headed to a cocktail bar in Trastevere. There, I ordered a drink whose ingredients and method I was unable to translate. It came in a martini glass, garnished with candied flowers. The final touch to the drink was being misted – myself and the glass – with sprays of violet perfume from a theatrical bartender. The others, already having found their seats, stifled laughter as I stood at the bar. It was as equally performative as the making of the carbonara.
While Rome was a spectacle, a Carbonara eaten on the arc of a loud night out, my next memory is quieter – a slow meal between the Quail and I in the Polish winter. It was shortly after Christmas, before term began at University, and we were in Krakow for a four night stay. The journey there wasn’t easy. Our plane was diverted to Warsaw due to freezing fog, so we spent the night at an airport hotel and woke at 5 AM to board the plane. As with descended into Krakow that morning, the same freezing fog that had barred us from entering the night before wrapped around the spires of churches and armaments of the castle. It caught the morning sun to become a pale yellow river of fog rolling between the streets of the city and the tall buildings that jutted out from its embrace. With the lack of sleep, it was a dream sequence I’ll never forget.
In Krakow we survived the cold, really cold, weather through a combination of schnitzel, potatoes and vodka while the churches and art galleries fed our souls. We walked around Jewish cemeteries and the Schindler factory; on a grey afternoon we went to the outskirts of the city and looked down into the Plaszow concentration camp – the rusting, monolithic guard stands that remain amongst buckling fences – which as an emotion slapped you in the face and viscerally brought you in contact with the past. The seriousness of the culture, of the people and their religion, existing under a tragic history, contrasted deeply with the locals we saw singing on karaoke night after many draft Tyskies.
One evening, we cooked at home, beginning with the eye-opening trip to a foreign supermarket. This is the easiest way to see a culture. Yes, the churches and the museums matter, but what the pasta shapes look like on a metal shelf tell you more. I always like looking at the foreign foods aisle which, in Europe, will feature food from England. There are always Heinz baked beans and often marmite. Occasionally, unexpected items appear like Bisto gravy or parma violets, the little shelf on which they gather dust becoming a mirror back onto one’s home.
The Quail and I found our ingredients and she roped me into a desert: mug cakes, that you make in the microwave from a small sachet and a drop of water. Surely not, I thought, but I couldn’t say no to her excitement. At home, another Airbnb, we climbed two flights of stairs and creaked open the heavy wooden door. The apartment was small and it had snowed that day so we could see white behind the lace curtains. The interior was tasteful, antique furniture in various grains of wood and a grand bed that had endured centuries of Polish derrieres.
The apartment was freezing, for the dentist’s office below us gave no benefit of trickle-up thermodynamics. I un-bagged the groceries and scattered loose zloty on the counter. The Quail, cold and tired from a long day of stomping around in the snow, dragged the duvet into the room and wrapped herself up on the floor. I cooked in the unfamiliar kitchen and, despite the electric-hob oven, pulled off a respectable dish. I was becoming adept at the carbonara, could make it without really thinking. I had progressed on to knowing that I should be using pecorino and guanciale, but wasn’t always able to source them. I had started caring seriously about my pasta choice, realising that whilst tradition dictates spaghetti, the grooves of a well-made rigatoni hold sauce like no other shape.
I plated the food on chipped china and put heavy, ancestral silverware on the table. The Quail crawled up from her cocoon on the floor and we ate at a small table pressed against the window, a single candle in tarnished candelabra between us. I rolled out of my seat onto the floor after dinner, spreading out on the duvet. The Quail made the mug cakes – sixty seconds in the microwave, ba-ding! – and we ate huddled on the floor. I told her I loved her, not for the first time, and she looked at me with glee mostly deriving from the cake. As is always the consequence of snow, the noise of the world was dampened, and I can’t remember how long we lay there in the Polish winter.
Siem Reap, 2017
When the Quail and I graduated from university it was still de rigueur to travel around Southeast Asia – to live a few weeks or months of vibrancy before one’s predominant aesthetic became glass buildings and grey office walls.
Our route was North to South Vietnam, with a sidestep West into Cambodia for four nights to visit Siem Reap, where we arrived one evening on a single-aisle propeller airplane. The city is a gateway to Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex of ruins and free-roaming monkeys that we explored each day by moped. We were staying in what was called a hostel, but looked more like an Ibiza villa with a pool and non-ironic cocktails that the staff didn’t really know how to mix.
Each morning we would rev our engine and explore the temple complex. We got out far, to ruins on the outskirts where we put our noses right up to the intricate stone carvings of a different world. I swerved and negotiated holes that dotted the otherwise modern road – in Vietnam these were referred to as “buffalo potholes,” on account of their size. We visited temples where great trees were taking over the ruins, rupturing through the stone floors. In one temple, famous for being used in Tomb Raider, we had to evacuate when an enormous beehive clinging onto a nearby tree plummeted out of the sky, releasing an angry swarm.
The days exploring went from light to dark. We would often stop back into town for lunch and revisit Angkor Wat when it was calmer, the sun ready to set. One early evening we walked around a temple and came upon monks praying in near darkness, only illuminated by candles. They were deep in the belly of the temple and only visible by their orange robes and occasional shine on their bald heads as they sat bowing to an enormous gold Buddha. On these afternoons, we would stay long enough to feel the air turning cool and for the cicadas to emerge. On first hearing the sound, we were dumbstruck to what it was. We stopped the moped and pulled to the side of the road as a pervasive ringing-whining-shrieking noise rattled through the trees from an indeterminate origin. It was starting to feel like the beginning of a horror sequence, but the mystery was dispelled by Google back at the hostel.
On our final day in Siem Reap, we woke early to catch the sun rise over the temples. After a sachet of instant coffee at four AM, we stumbled to the moped and flicked on the headlamp. I drove the moped and the Quail hung to me tight. My fear of her falling asleep and becoming Cambodian carrion was dispelled by the painful speedbumps I launched us over. Everyone was in a great race to beat the sun, and we hurtled past tuk tuks full of families with groggy children. There were no streetlights and I could only judge speed and distance by the blurry red of taillights I was overtaking.
The sunrise was a disappointment – a hazy glow that painted everything in a grey sweaty gauze and left the image of the temple an undefined blur of tiredness and crowds. No loss for us. In the days before we had explored enough and had plenty more sunrises to come.
Back at the hostel, tired and dusty, we each drank a pot of English breakfast tea then ate scrambled eggs on white toast with ketchup. Something had triggered the desire for home food. We were at the point in our travels where our taste buds were breaking down, begging to be reunited with the flavours of the West. This isn’t to disparage the food we ate across the trip. We were inspired and amazed by the street-corner bowls of Pho in Hanoi, the imperial cuisine of Hue, the catfish on Cat Ba island, and the yellow curry of Cambodia. No food, however, is the same as pasta, and that is what we sought that evening in Siem Reap.
I Googled and ended up on TripAdvisor, looking at photos of fat Americans or muscled groups of Australian lads posing with pizza and beers on Pub Street, a place in the city to be avoided: a street where you can buy candied scorpions to impress your fellow creatine-consuming bros; a place of massage parlours and blurred legality.
I found La Pasta at the edges of the town centre, somewhere I imagined expat families took their kids for birthday meals or brought their fussy parents. It was what we wanted, a cheap reproduction of the Sistine chapel hung on the wall and there was an oversized pepper mill lurking in the back. When I went to the bathroom and poked my head into the kitchen I saw fridges full of imported cheeses and cured meats. The proprietor looked sufficiently Italian and the Quail and I ordered carbonara.
There were only two other diners in the place and the restaurant had a wide open front that looked out onto parked mopeds and moving mopeds blurring by on the street behind. The carbonara came and the pasta choice was spaghetti which they had turned so tightly in the pan with tongs that it was ravelled into a birds nest of salt, fat and carbs. The pasta was sublime, made more so by having grown accustomed to the predominantly rice-based noodles of Southeast Asia and a diet absent of cheese.
I sweated in the Cambodian evening heat as I brought more and more to my mouth. The tines of my fork were holding picture perfect morseaus of my favourite dish, and I looked into it like a grain of sand holding the universe to see the comforts and palate of home in a tight knot of spaghetti.
We indulged and imbibed and then sat and sweltered. My linen shirt stuck to me as rain began to trickle and then pour in a deluge outside. Our moped was pelted by rain which ricocheted off in great globules. We paid the bill but didn’t want to elope, the rain and the comfort of the food kept us glued to our seats as the proprietor brought us coffee and biscotti. The Quail and I sat watching the water fall from the awning. The proprietor stood at the back of the restaurant and looked out. He must have seen plenty of evening storms in his time in Cambodia and, I like to think, none of them meant anything less than the first. The same way each plate of pasta he served to a weary traveller held the same meaning as the first time he ate it as a boy. For him, at the back of the restaurant, and us holding hands under the table, this is what it was truly like.
Rigatoni alla Carbonara for Two
350g rigatoni pasta: De Cecco make the best, Barilla is a close second.
150g guanciale: Italian delis and larger or specialty supermarkets (Whole Foods) should have this. If not, pancetta works.
75g pecorino cheese: parmesan, of course, works and the quantity depends on how cheesy you like the sauce.
3 eggs: get good ones; the richer the yolk, the richer the sauce.
Black pepper: freshly cracked. If you want to use pre-milled pepper, don’t. You weren't raised in a barn.
Salt: if you care about your sodium intake, go eat a salad. If you care about good pasta, salt the water so thoroughly that you could float on it.
Bring well-salted water in a large pan to a rolling boil and start cooking the pasta, this should be 8-10 minutes for it to be al dente, depending on the brand.
With 5 minutes to go on the pasta, bring a frying pan to medium-high heat and cook your guanciale, tossing occasionally to seal the fat. It should be golden brown on each side.
Have your partner mix one whole egg, two egg yolks and the cheese. Watch them carefully. If they are slow, yell “where’s the cheese sauce!” in your best Gordon Ramsay voice.
Drain the pasta and turn the heat off for the frying pan. Mix the pasta with the guanciale in the frying pan to coat it with a fine layer of rendered fat. Continue stirring and, once the pan is cool enough that you can hold your hand over it, pour in the egg and cheese mixture and mix vigorously. You don’t want the eggs to scramble.
Serve with a final grating of parmesan and crack of black pepper.
In your pursuit of excellence you will likely fuck up and scramble the eggs. Keep experimenting, perfecting, and don’t be discouraged.
I still cannot decide what drink, if any, goes with the dish. A cheap Italian lager – Peroni or Birra Moretti – is probably the safest. Wine wise, a crisp Italian white (Gavi or Soave) works as does a light red. If you salt the pasta correctly, you will probably want some water.
When you’ve mastered the basics, try a twist. Frying a few strips of well-oiled and salted zucchini with our guanciale is a favourite.
Don’t try to cook this for more than four people unless you have a pasta pan big enough to bathe in, and the reaction time of an F1 driver.