A traditional Italian cured meat, guanciale is pronounced gwan-chee-ah-LAY. The name refers to one of two cuts taken from the head (the other being the tongue) of the pig, the cheek or jowl. The word comes from the Italian word for cheek, guancia.
Who Invented Guanciale?
In light of the frequent inquiries I receive about Guanciale, I am certain that the British public knows little about it. This is a shame, as Guanciale is perhaps another of those things we have the Romans to thank for. This Roman charcuterie delicacy hails from the central regions of Lazio and Umbria, but is virtually unknown in the UK.
Guanciale - Better Than Bacon?
Also known as neck or face bacon - questionable culinary terms! Nevertheless, these names suggest a connection to bacon. However, it is rare, if ever, to imagine that Guanciale would be sliced and fried into a bacon sandwich - more on this later. You can take it from me, it's simply not cricket.
Fat is Flavour
Cured pork cheek has very little lean muscle meat. In contrast, typical streaky bacon is about 50/50 fat to lean ratio. In contrast, guanciale has a thicker fat layer, typically around 60-80%. Therefore, it might not be the first choice for a traditional British breakfast, fry-up, or bacon sandwich.
Modern dry cured bacon shares some similarities with this Roman bacon, notably the curing process. 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 Guanciale - What's The Difference?
The easiest way to explain the difference is to understand the similarities. Though bacon can be made from many different types of meat, 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 a 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 chillies - 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, cured Italian pork jowl won't 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 favourites 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;
Cured pork cheek has to be one of the best-kept secrets of Rome. When it comes to authentic Carbonara nothing beats the intense flavour than crispy cubes of Guanciale.
That said, on rare occasions 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!