When we moved into this house over twenty years ago, our neighbour Mrs M was already in her mid-70s. She’d arrived from Italy at the age of thirteen and had gone straight to work in the canefields of Cairns. She was sharp as a tack, stubborn as a mule and tough as nails – she used to trim the edges of her lawn with a cane knife (machete). I adored her.
Our house was a deceased estate that had been empty for nearly two years, which gives you some idea of the state it was in. There was no shower or inside toilet, the kitchen had 53cm (21″) of bench space – divided into three sections, and the front bedroom had layer upon layer of rotting carpet.
We were in our early 20s, and had borrowed money from everyone we knew to make the purchase price. We were also stupid. We laid a white tiled kitchen floor – because I liked how shiny and clean it looked – and spent $1500 of the $2000 we had allocated for furniture on an antique Kilim hall runner. We sat on beanbags for the first year.
Mrs M, bless her soul, took pity on us. She would bring over covered plates of pasta and peas, and vegetables from her garden, and figs from her enormous trees. She would make me espresso coffee strong enough to dissolve a spoon, and hem my jeans so that I didn’t have to pay $12 to the drycleaner. She taught me how to be a good neighbour.
And I grew to love the older Italians in our neighbourhood. They’re incredibly kind, brutally honest, and passionate about life.
. . . . .
Batutto is a soffrito which uses a specific type of Italian salted pork. I decided to see if it was available at the cheese shop. When I arrived, Johnny’s mum Rita and her friend Teresa were both there.
I couldn’t see anything marked as “batutto” in the fridge cabinet, but I did find guanciale, speck and pancetta. I asked the ladies if one of those would do.
No, no, no, batutto had to be made at home, using pork belly bought from a butcher in Campsie (not from a regular butcher, as the pork would be too lean).
What, I asked, was the difference? The guanciale, speck and pancetta were all salted pork products – couldn’t I substitute one of those?
The speck, I was told, was too smoky, the pancetta wasn’t the right flavour for tripe, and guanciale could only be used in Amatriciana sauce. A vigorous discussion then ensued as to whether Amatriciana sauce should or shouldn’t have onions in it.
As I said, I love Italian nonnas.
So I bought some guanciale, made from the jowl of a pig, and used it to create Spaghetti all’Amatriciana. My apologies, Teresa – the only recipe I could find included onions.
I followed this New York Times recipe very closely, substituting half a fresh cayenne for the dried chilli flakes. If you need guanciale or San Marzano tomatoes, Johnny carries them in his cheese shop, but ring first to check, as both items are frequently out of stock.
Here are the ingredients I used:
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 medium onion, very thinly sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 100g guanciale, chopped into 5mm thick slivers
- 2 x 400g tins San Marzano tomatoes
- half a red cayenne pepper, chopped
- salt to taste
- ¼ cup (3 – 4 tablespoons) grated pecorino
- 400g dried pasta
The recipe only required a small square of guanciale, but the flavour was strong enough to permeate through the whole dish. Make sure to remove the tough rind before chopping it up. (More about guanciale here.)
It was a big hit with the boys – while I was taking the photo above, they ate the entire pot!