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Cacio e pepe: The Italian Way of Eating

A rich pasta dish that requires only three simple ingredients, Cacio e pepe is hard not to love, especially for those with an acquired palate.

Cacio e pepe is a special Italian delicacy, which requires only three specific ingredients. Yes, you read it right, just three!!!

Two of which should sound familiar to anyone with a Roman dialect. Cacio is Romanesco for sheep’s milk cheese complemented with black pepper, the cheese – ideally Pecorino – unites with pasta to create the “perfect” rich, creamy sauce that simply lets your taste buds go wild.

The dish, which ‘miraculously appeared’ centuries ago among shepherds who devoted their spring and summer seasons in the gazing meadows of the Apennine Mountains, which traverse the Italian peninsula. According to legend, the shepherds would scour their personal stores of dried pasta and pepper; two ingredients which are renowned to be more resistant to spoilage, subsequently they conducted their very own experiments with cheese made from milk presumably of the herders’ flocks and voila they ended up with something truly divine to the palate.

According to legend, cacio e pepe first appeared centuries ago among shepherds in Italy’s Apennine Mountains (Credit: Dea/L Casadei/Getty Images)

“Black pepper directly stimulates the heat receptors and helped the shepherds to protect themselves from the cold,” explained Alessandra Argiolas, marketing manager for Sardinian Pecorino producers Argiolas Formaggi. “And the pasta guaranteed a lot of energy.”

Angelo Carotenuto, a native Roman and owner and manager of LivItaly Tours, claims that cacio e pepe’s origin may be a bit less romantic than surmised.

Carotenuto and local guide Dario Bartoli, tell us Italian dishes such as Cacio e pepe, amatriciana and carbonara like were discovered in the mines and factories that once surrounded the Lazio region encompassing Rome.

Dried cheese, dried guanciale and dried pasta were filling, cheap and didn’t spoil easily:

Considered as one of the best solutions for a simple, cheap and filling meal. According to Carotenuto dried cheese and dried guanciale would probably have been used locally for eons. He assumes the dishes would have been created during the time of the Romans possibly in the 1800s when pasta was a favourite in the Italian capital.

“You’re looking at the unification of Italy, so the ability to transfer flavours and recipes easily,” he explained, implying that before the unification of the country, the less fortunate would have to settle with either bread or polenta (a boiled commeal dish made from other grains).

One thing though the dishes have captured many a heart around the world. In an episode of No Reservations, Bourdain was seen quoting “could be the greatest thing in the history of the world”

Cacio e pepe is made with only three ingredients: cheese, black pepper and pasta (Credit: AlexPro9500/Getty Images)

The Cacio e pepe, which bears its humble roots has now been accepted as a popular delicacy around the world, some would even argue that it is now a more sumptuous meal than ever.

Despite its international acclaim and elevated status, at its core, Cacio e pepe still remains a stalwartly simple dish.

The secret to this dish is the purity of its ingredients. To deviate from its three-part formula is to risk angering a local. “We’re pretty strict about how these things should taste,” said Carotenuto.

Cacio e pepe is generally preferred to be made with spaghetti, though the authentic recipe requires the use of tonnarelli, a similar local noodle with a bit more chew thanks to the addition of egg.

“That’s what I would order if I was in a restaurant,” explained Elizabeth Minchilli, culinary tour guide and author of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City. “If I was at home and couldn’t get that, I would probably go with spaghetti.”

Expert restaurateurs and chefs claim that a long noodle is essential to achieving the perfect texture, which in turn accentuates the flavour.

“You really want to coat every strand with the cheese, and the fat from the cheese, and the starch from the water,” said Minchilli. “It just makes stirring really fast easier.”

Black peppercorn should be crushed in a way that its aroma would seep into the dish. Many chefs, including Filippo and Giovanni Rinaldi of London’s Mammafarina pasta pop-ups, “bloom” the pepper in the pan by toasting it slightly, making it even more flavourful.

 Dire bonjour à “her majesty, Pecorino!”.

“Pecorino is very important because of the flavour and sapidity that this cheese brings to the dish,” they said, noting that either Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Sardo (from Sardinia) can be used.

While the Rinaldis say that, “it should be forbidden to make cacio e pepe without Pecorino”, some do deviate a bit from this norm by adding another, more familiar cheese: Parmesan.

“Cacio e pepe is a recipe of the Roman tradition,” she said, disclosing that in 48BC, Virgil was describing the nutritional properties of the domestic sheep’s milk cheese. Parmesan, which hails ironically from Emilia Romagna, is milder, nuttier and sweeter, the root of an Alfredo sauce, which Carotenuto calls “cacio e pepe for the American sweet tooth”.

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