What is real pasta?
Pasta is simply the Italian word for dough. Originally, pasta in Italy was a conception of sheer genius. It began with growing the highest-quality hard wheat, and the name given to this specific type of wheat was durum, from the Latin, meaning hard. After the pasta maker had purchased exactly the right grain, the next important stage was finding the right miller to mill the grain to a certain precise specification – and not to a fine, powdery flour but to something called semolina, which, in Italian, means semi-milled and is quite unlike flour, as semolina is made up of tiny, coarse, corn-coloured granules with sharp edges.
The skill of the pasta maker was to then carefully mix the semolina with cold water. Then, after the mixing came the shaping, and the pasta was forced through special bronze dyes, which gave it a specific texture. After that the pasta was dried in open-windowed lofts where either the mountain air or sea breezes – or both, depending on the region – could circulate. This carefully monitored drying process could take up to two days. It was this natural drying process, along with the specifications above, that produced a quality of pasta that had captured within it all the nuttiness and flavour of the wheat grain but also a special texture. The semolina and the effect of the bronze dies produced a roughness at the edges which, in its grand design, would provide, when cooked, the right kind of surface on which the sauce being served with it would adhere and cling and not slide off. So simple, so subtle and so wonderful.
What happened next was that, soon, everybody outside Italy wanted to eat pasta, too, and once this kind of mass production was under way, corners were cut, profit margins came into play, soft flour was added, hot instead of cold water, there were nylon dyes, speeded-up hot-air quick-drying, and the whole process underwent a shift from quality to competitive price wars and then it was the ‘sliced white’ here-we-go-downward-spiral all over again.
The case for good-quality dried pasta. Something else has crept into the frame at the same time, and that is the misguided and false conception that fresh pasta is better than dried. Yes, Italians do make and eat a very small amount of pasta fresca, but it is a different concept; one that more usually involves a filling, as in ravioli or tortellini. But in this country – and in America – pasta fresca has gone crazy. It’s now a far cry from the original described above and it’s a strange paradox to clone a product that has a natural shelf life of two years, then make it and sell it as fresh, then add something that will give it a longer shelf life and at the same time call the resulting slithery, slimy gloop made with soft flour and eggs pasta. If you want to enjoy cooking and eating pasta at its best, then my advice is to buy good-quality dried pasta. Yes, it does cost more, but we’re not talking about great luxury here; we’re talking about a main meal for two people that might cost £2 instead of £1.
The only fresh pastas I ever buy are ravioli, stuffed pasta shapes or lasagne sheets, which are, I think, of a far better quality than most of the dried packs. Once you taste quality dried pasta, it will be very hard for you to return to the industrially produced alternatives. It’s not just the flavour: the firm, rough texture not only puts it way out in front but actually helps you to achieve that al dente ‘firm to the teeth’ texture that is the mark of well-cooked pasta. Poor quality often ends up sticky and soggy.
When you buy your pasta, make sure it says pasta di semola di grano duro – durum wheat semolina pasta. The other modern misconception is to serve more sauce than pasta. Good pasta should be enjoyed for itself, with a small amount of concentrated sauce used to merely dress it.
Egg pasta There are certain dried pastas that contain eggs – pasta all’ uova - which add richnessm but I now prefer the original semonlina and water version and like to keep the richness confined to the sauce.
Find out more about pasta and how to cook it here.
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