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The pros & cons of a dogma

Last week Italian social media was boiling with rage. A sacred dogma had been violated. A recipe for a one-pot carbonara appeared on a French website, complete with a video showing bow tie pasta (shock and horror, they even replaced the spaghetti) being simmered with pancetta and onions. This Gallic version of ‘carbó’, even called for creme fraiche to be added at the end, together with a rather mean sprinkling of Parmesan.

For Italians, this was tantamount to an offence to their national pride. Millions of my countrymen viewed the clip, leaving thousands of comments ranging from the mocking to the outraged. With calls such as “You already have the Mona Lisa, leave the carbonara alone”, even the Italian prime minister was asked to dive into the debate. But why all this fuss for just a recipe?

The pros & cons of a dogma - Tastes of Carolina

Tagliatelle with white meat ragout. One of the stalwarts of Piedmontese cuisine

Because you need to understand that we Italians, despite being renowned for our creativity and knack for invention in  many a field from design to engineering, when it comes to food we are staunchly dogmatic. Even something as simple as a pasta with courgette has a recipe that shouldn’t be messed with. Having been living abroad for almost half of my life, I am ambivalent towards this. While on the one hand I think a one-pot carbonara is just a ill thought ‘porcheria’, I am also convinced that recipes should be constantly evolving. Availability of certain ingredients, tastes, trends and influences: all these things change and they should be reflected in the way we cook.

My rule generally is: if it’s simple and it works, don’t change it. The Holy Trinity of soffritto  – onion, carrot and celery – will always be preserved. But for slightly more complex dishes, I like to add, substitute and exchange ingredients, often intrigued by the result.

This aversion to change is, I think, a symptom of our Italian society: our cuisine is dogmatic as much as we Italians refuse to evolve. Living abroad and away from the granitic obstacles my home country keeps on placing on its path to progress, I can see how this is hindering our growth as a society.

We refuse to acknowledge what’s happening beyond our borders and we deny our fate, much in the same way we wouldn’t accept cumin as a spice to add to lasagne, or dried porcini in a pasta e fagioli. Anything that is different, or even worse, foreign, is to be despised. The Italian way, the old recipe, is always best.
I am not sure when exactly we became this rigid. I really don’t think that peasants two centuries ago would have been so particular about how to cook their trippa or finanziera. They just got on with it, and many of our best recipes came from the need to make something good out of very little.

I think that instead of being so hung up on the technical minutiae of a recipe, Italians should spend more of their efforts in showing other countries why their dishes work so well, shining a light on those subtle alchemies of taste that turn a simple dish into an epic one.
If we had done this, the French would have never come up with bow ties and creme fraiche in a carbonara. Why? Because as every Italian knows, all the magic of this dish is in how the fresh egg hugs and curdles on the long strands of pasta. And this is always the case, even if you enjoy a final shave of allspice more than the traditional black pepper.

Carolina Stupino

7 Comments

  1. Adrian Williams on April 13, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Well said – although I must make your Italian roots took my addition of mushrooms to lasagne rather well 🙂

  2. Tina Geraldi on April 14, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Many of my English friends too believe that cream is an essential ingredient of carbonara, just another culinary blasphemy like, among so many, sprinkling cheese on marinara pizza. Should one simply call the French creation another name?

    • Carolina Stupino on April 15, 2016 at 8:55 am

      Yes, how about, one-pot farfalle with bacon and cream?

  3. Elisa on April 15, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Italian’ s cuisine is constantly evolving in Italy. You can see it from the restaurants you may find if you go out for dinner: they are divided in traditional restaurants, where you can find the old and traditional dishes and modern ones where you can find new dishes created by the chefs that alway try to do something new and original. But the thing is that when I see italian recipes made by foreign people, it just seems that using tipical italian ingredients such as basil pesto, mozzarella, tomato, garlic (we don’t put garlic in every sauce!!) mixed all together, then you can tell you have made an italian pot. No worrys about that, but maybe someone coud say that it’s not an Italian pot at all 🙂

  4. Roberto on April 19, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    I’m sorry Carolina, but I disagree a little.

    This is not about not evolving. Everyone is of course free to change a dish as they like, including (horror for me) cooking a one pot farfalle with bacon. The problem is taking a classic recipe, changing it, and ‘selling’ it as the real thing.

    It’s a little bit like with cocktails. A Black Russian is vodka and khalua, in very precise measures I’d add, and doesn’t have Coke at all, despite what you often see in British bars.

    The same is Carbonara.
    If someone wants to use Parmigiano instead of Pecorino Romano, and put cream and the egg at the end, they’re welcome, as long as they name it something else.

    • Carolina Stupino on April 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      Roberto, it looks like we see it in the same way. If you read my piece, you will understand I am not saying that in order to evolve one must accept a carbonara made with farfalle in one pot. That is not carbonara and that is not what I mean by evolving. I’m just saying that while on the one hand we are perhaps too rigidly dogmatic (why not try cumin in lasagne for example) on the other we failed at communicating the basics of our food culture. In the case of carbonara, we need to explain the pleasure of the dish is precisely in how the egg curdles around the spaghetti and cheese, with the sautéed crunchy pancetta adding taste and depth. If the French or the English understood this, we would not have a carbonara with cream, farfalle and bacon, cooked in one pot. Or at least they would not call it carbonara. i hope now I cleared this out for you. Have a great day!

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