Guanciale is a traditional Italian cured meat. Pronounced gwan-chee-AH-lay, the name refers to one of the few cuts taken from the head of the pig, the jowl or cheek: guancia - Italian for cheek, hence, Guanciale!
Pig cheek or jowl is a charcuterie cut taken from the area just below the ear, down and right along the lower jawline - see image.
Based on the times I've been asked to explain it, I'd confidently say that the British public knows very little about the existence of Guanciale. Clearly a shame, it seems Guanciale may be another invention we've got the Romans to thank for. Virtually unknown in the UK, Guanciale is a Roman charcuterie delicacy originating from the central regions of Lazio and Umbria.
Also known as neck or face bacon - questionable culinary terms! Though, as the name suggests it rightly indicates a connection to bacon. Alas, rarely, if ever could we imagine that Guanciale would be sliced and fried up for a bacon sandwich - more to be revealed later. Though take it from me, it's just not the done thing
What is the typical fat content of Guanciale?
Cured pork cheek has very little lean muscle meat. Whereas typically streaky bacon would come in at around a 50/50 fat to lean ratio. Guanciale (see photo-1) has a much thicker fat layer, usually around 80/20 (fat/lean). As a result, you wouldn't anticipate it being the choice selection for a traditional British breakfast, fry-up or bacon sandwich.
The connection between this Roman bacon and our modern-day bacon is limited to similarities within the dry curing process.
i.e. salt (ideally Himalayan) and spices (Guanciale: bay, juniper and thyme) are rubbed on the outer surfaces, ensuring every seam, nook and cranny are coated fully. Curing salt (sodium nitrite) is not used, though it's standard practice in producing the majority of all bacon around the globe. Why? It shortens the curing and makes it look pretty - read more on this here.
Bacon versus Charcuterie - What's The Difference?
The easiest way to explain the difference is to understand the similarities. Though bacon can be made from many different meats, pork is the most common. Using this as an example, pork is transformed into bacon by the application, or injection of a cure ( salt and spices). Each ingredient has a specific role to play, though basically the job of salt is to extract water and the spices to flavour. They both have other important roles regarding bacteria and food safety though this is whole new subject we'll go into in a seperate article.
Another significant element of Guanciale is the more than generous quantities of black pepper - applied, firstly as part of the dry cure recipe, then again for the final preservation and shelf presentation.
Once the cheeks have finished the curing stage - it's all washed off, not with water like it is for bacon, but red wine! It's then left fully submerged in wine for an hour or so. The now crimson cheeks are thoroughly dried with a lint-free cloth. The fat side is then covered entirely with a mix of ground black pepper or chilies - thus helping to preserve it for shelf storage. Finally, the drying and maturing phase begins, It's this that turns Pig Cheek into Guanciale.
Watched day and night, with weight, humidity and temperature closely monitored and recorded. It will take each slab of this fatty delicacy at least two and, up to three months for the magic to happen - it needs to achieve a minimum 30% weight loss.
Magical - Correct, this is the point the Guanciale is born - this is the moment when raw cheek bacon is transformed into the ready to eat culinary delight.
Fear not, Guanciale will not be replacing bacon anytime soon – uniquely, this Italian delicacy is not even a dish, as such. Instead, the real value is as a flavouring ingredient to Italian delights, such as Bucatini all'Amatriciana (hot cheesy tomato sauce from Amatrice) and Spaghetti Alla Carbonara (carbonara, translation - Charcoal Burner).
Famed more for the quality of its creamy fat, Guanciale renders at very low temperatures. The melted fat has a low viscosity, this facilitates the infusion of intense flavours into ingredients such as; pasta or mash potato;
Guanciale has to be one of the best-kept secrets in Rome. When it comes to authentic Carbonara nothing else will do.
That said, there may be a rare occasion i.e. Siege, war or global health emergency, when trying as you might, you just can't find the beloved Guanciale anywhere. In the extremely unlikely event that any of these should ever occur: Pancetta, bacon lardons or even streaky smoked bacon could be excused as an acceptable alternative.
Italian Spaghetti Carbonara has just five ingredients:
Bucatini Pasta (al dente)
Like much Italian food, it's naturally simple and tastes fantastic!