A few weeks ago, an Italian officemate corrected someone talking about carbonara sauce with cream, saying that true carbonara sauce was from the Rome region, and she was pretty sure it used pecorino cheese – in any case, certainly not cream. In France, carbonara sauce is generally considered to be diced-up bacon (cooked), and a fresh egg mixed with cream. The hot bacon and pasta, when stirred with the sauce, cook the egg and cream just enough to thicken.
On a certain social site (which has been great for getting back in touch with friends around the world!), an Italian friend confirmed that the sauce used pecorino, and one of her friends mentioned that a dash of ground black pepper should be added too – that was where the “carbon” came from in the name. It all sounded delicious, so I was very much looking forward to finding some pecorino here in Nice. “Shouldn’t be too difficult, we’re near the border, I bet there will be some at the Libé market,” I thought.
I went there today, and sure enough, there was an Italian shop selling Italian hams and cheeses! With not one, but two types of pecorino: romano and tendre sardegna, which you can see in this blurry photo (taken with my cameraphone). The pecorino tendre sardegna is the cheese with black rind, two of them are stacked on the right. The pecorino romano is in the middle, marked 17.90€/kg. It also has a black crust, which isn’t visible here.
I asked for une tranche de pecorino romano (“a slice of pecorino romano”) in my own Niçois-ish accent, meaning what I said sounded more like “una transha de pecorino romano”. (French people who don’t know me first assume I’m from the area due to my accent… it’s a bit odd, knowing I picked up the accent because it’s actually easier for me to pronounce, being more rhythmic.) Also, having studied Italian at university, I used Italian “r” sounds, in the front of the mouth, not the French “r” rolled in the back of the mouth. “Romano??” the shopkeeper asked, seeming surprised. “Romano!” I nodded, smiling. “È italiano!” he smiled. I nodded, smiling again, happy to have found Italian cheeses.
Immediately after I’d nodded, I realized I’d misheard him: he had said “è italiana“, meaning he’d assumed I was Italian (“a” makes it feminine, me being a woman, whereas pecorino is masculine), and I had just said “yes” with my nod. English, French and Italian jumbled in my mind, I couldn’t say a word to correct the misunderstanding. “Italiani hanno molto buon gusto,” the man said cheerily. Again I understood right away (“Italians have very good taste”), so I chuckled and nodded, then mentally kicked myself for getting into a conversation in which I couldn’t participate. My hesitation made me too late to say anything in any language again: “Dopo?” the man asked. “Next?” literally – in French, market sellers often say “Autre chose?”, equivalent to our “anything else?” I motioned “no” and said “okay” for just the pecorino romano. (“OK” seems to work in 99% of Indo-European languages.) He rang me up, looking disappointed, and I left, feeling much the same way, wishing I’d been able to express myself.
Then again, it’s not exactly easy to explain: as simple a statement as “I’m American” may seem, those of us who live here know that it doesn’t conjure images of multilingualism or “good taste.” I am also “French”, though not born here, and being French does equate to ideas of “good taste” for some, but there’s friendly rivalry between Spain, France, and Italy as to whose taste is “better”, and depending on the person, you never quite know what stereotypes you’ll be running into. In any case, one thing is certain: I speak just enough Italian to embarrass myself. I still remember that stage of speaking French, too!