I do not fully understand the synergistic relationship between shellfish and pork products, but I do not question it. Clams are delicious with smoky bacon, and at Spanish restaurant Pizarro, I ate seared scallops, each of which was topped with a translucent sliver of Iberico pork lardo – pure cured fat – which softened and clung lasciviously to the scallop. It was seriously one of the most pervy things I have ever put in my mouth. Guanciale is unsmoked cured pork jowl. The fat in guanciale, of which guanciale is mostly comprised, is more delicate and tender than belly fat. Guanciale is the key ingredient in classic Carbonara sauces (until you have tried Carbonara with guanciale, you have not truly experienced Carbonara) and it is a remarkably fortuitous item to have in your fridge when you’re casting about for a new way to prepare mussels.
I actually made this guanciale myself with my friend Nicola using Gloucestershire Old Spot pork jowls from Nath the butcher, following Ruhlman’s method. (By “made”, I mean to say I helped her weigh out pink salt, salt, and sugar, patted it on the jowls, put it in a plastic bag to cure, and called her anxiously for bi-weekly updates while she did all the work.) The end product was glorious, and was one of my most singularly gratifying culinary experiences of the year. Nothing makes you feel quite so butch as curing your own meat. If, however, you don’t want to wait three to four weeks to make this dish, or you don’t have a cold room in which to hang your porky creations, you can buy guanciale at an Italian deli. In a pinch, you can use pancetta or unsmoked bacon, but I heartily recommend the guanciale. It is DECADENT.
As for the wild garlic, I think this may be one of my favorite uses so far. It is so wonderfully fragrant, and with the sweet grape tomatoes, briny liquid from the mussels, and fatty pig cheek, it is heaven. Serve these mussels with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the delicious juices, or you can even toss them with linguine.
1 kg (2.2 pounds) mussels, scrubbed clean and debearded (you debeard mussels by pulling any seaweedy bits firmly away from the shell, ideally under cold running water)
100 grams guanciale, or about four thick slices, cut into ½ cm dice
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
350 grams (about ¾ pound) grape tomatoes, as sweet as you can find, sliced in half lengthwise
25 grams (about an ounce) wild garlic (ramps), cut into chiffonade
About 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
80 ml (about 1/3 cup) dry white wine
Sweat the diced guanciale over medium-low heat in a reasonably large heavy bottomed saucepan until it is translucent. Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook until golden. Add the sliced garlic and shallots and sauté until transparent. Do not allow to brown. Stir in the grape tomatoes and black pepper, and cook just until the tomatoes have started to soften and split, no more than five to seven minutes.
Add the wine and increase heat to high. When the liquid has started to boil, add the mussels and put a lid on the pot. Cook for about three minutes, covered, shaking the pot from time to time. Gently stir through the wild garlic and parsley, reserving a few sprigs of parsley for garnish if desired, and replace the lid on the pot. Continue to cook until the mussels have opened completely, about another three to five minutes. You shouldn’t need salt, because both the mussels and the guanciale contain quite a lot, but at this point you can taste your broth and add a bit of salt if desired.Serve immediately. Makes two to four main-course servings, or four to eight servings if served as a starter.