Pasta is a universally enjoyed food, and almost every country serves a type of noodle. In China, it is mein; Japan, udon; Poland, pierogi; Germany, spaetzle. The popularity of pasta can be attributed to several factors: it is easily manufactured, it takes up little storage space, it is easy to cook, and it is rich in complex carbohydrates.
Ancient Etruscan meals of gruel and porridge were eventually replaced with more appetizing unleavened bread cakes. Food historians believe these cakes may have been the precursor to pasta. Opinions about where the noodle originated vary. The Italian explorer Marco Polo has been commonly credited with bringing the noodle back to Italy from his travels in the Orient during the 1300s. However, some contend that a close examination of Polo’s papers reveals that he reported enjoying a certain type of noodle in China, comparing it favorably to the pasta he was accustomed to eating in Italy.
Nevertheless, it is true that Chinese noodles have been around for centuries. The vermicelli-like transparent noodles are made from the paste of germinated mung beans and are usually soaked in water before they are boiled or fried. (Pasta has not always been prepared by boiling. In fact, boiled noodles were once considered a relatively bland meal. Frying or grilling were the preferred preparations.) Koreans claim to have taught the Japanese how to make soba noodles in the 12th century, using Chinese buckwheat grown in the northern regions where rice paddies could not survive.
Early French writers also mention a dish called pastillum, essentially a ravioli-like pouch filled with meat. However, the Italians have staked the claim so vehemently that today we generally think of pasta dishes as Italian in origin. In fact, the word “pasta” comes from the Italian phrase “paste (dough) alimentari (relating to nourishment).”
The first industrial production of pasta occurred in Naples in the early 15th century. The site was chosen for its naturally fluctuating temperatures, sometimes as much as four times a day, which provided the hot and cold temperatures necessary for drying. Mechanical drying was not invented until 1800.
Pasta is made from a mixture of water and semolina flour. Semolina is a coarse-ground flour from the heart, or endosperm, of durum wheat, an amber-colored high protein hard wheat that is grown specifically for the manufacture of pasta. With a lower starch content and a higher protein content than all-purpose flours, semolina flour is easily digested. Farina, rougher granulations of other high-quality hard wheat, is also used to make some pastas. The semolina and farina flour are enriched with B-vitamins and iron before they are shipped to pasta plants.
Eggs are sometimes added to the mixture for color or richness. Federal guidelines stipulate that egg noodles contain a minimum of 5.5% egg solids. Vegetable juices, such as spinach, beet, tomato, and carrot, can also be added for color and taste. In recent years, the addition of herbs and spices such as garlic, basil, and thyme has become popular.
WHAT IS PASTA AND HOW IS MADE
Pasta is one of the basic ingredients of the Mediterranean diet and is a food of ancient origin, which some scholars agree come from the Chinese civilization and introduced in Italy by Marco Polo on his return to Venice.
Pasta is a dry ingredient normally made from flour, semolina, eggs, water, and salt and in some cases dried vegetables are added to give the pasta a particular colour or taste turning them into “Special Pastas”. Pasta in general as an ingredient is considered part of the healthy foods group, this of course does not take into account the pasta sauces of which is normally accompanied which can be calorific and in some cases unhealthy.
The most commonly known pasta is the so called “egg pasta”. It takes this name because is made with flour, water, eggs and salt and has a yellowish colour. This pasta is typical from the North of Italy and in the international food scene this recipe for pasta making has become the norm.
However, in the South of Italy pasta is made very differently. In the southern regions of Italy such as Naples, Puglia, Sicily and specially Calabria pasta is made using only semolina flour, water and salt. This combination produces a whiter, lighter and an easier to digest pasta avoiding the heaviness of the egg pasta caused by the combination of 00 flour and eggs. Because southern regions especially Calabria has not had the same international exposure this pasta making recipe has not had the same recognition or acknowledgement than the 00 flour and egg recipe.
Within Italy however, southern pasta makers especially those from Calabria have superseded and taken the art of pasta making to another level producing one of the best pastas in Italy now being sought by Northern Italians and slowly being noticed in the international food scene .
The key of the Calabrian artisan pasta relies on the quality of the semolina, the antique production techniques and very importantly the drying process which gives the pasta that very high quality texture and flavour only similar to fresh pasta when cooked.
Every drying time will depend on the pasta shape; they can go from 10 hours to 48 hours. For this process to be successful and produce the quality that any Italian expects the pasta needs to go through 2 drying stages:
- The first stage is where the pasta loses 1/3 of its water content. This process creates a thin layer over each shape making the product to have the correct conditions to hold its shape throughout the entire process.
- The second stage which is the real drying process the pasta in placed in large net trays inside a structure similar to a cupboard with holes on each side. The pasta is then subject to cycles of hot air ventilation and left to rest in a high humidity environment so the water of the most inner layers flows outwards and evaporates. Times and temperatures vary depending on the pasta shape but normally they range between 60° and 70°.
Of course this product process is only found in real artisan pasta. Industrially made pasta is dried in very hot ovens for a period of less than 12 minutes resulting in a thin and fragile product.
Another factor in the quality of the pasta is the material of the molds from which the dough is put through. In order to produce the millions of different pasta shapes we nowadays find special molds had to be created, the best ones are made of bronze. This material creates a rough surface over the dough when passing through it, this “roughness “ is what makes the sauce stick and stay in the pasta. The best past will be made using these molds and the packaging will say “Trafilata al bronzo”.
So, the actual production of artisan pasta is a slow process that requires skill, technique and patience but be sure that at the end you will enjoy the best pasta you can get if the process and the skill of the pasta maker are good, resulting in a product of superior quality, flavour, texture and digestibility that sets it apart from industrially made pasta and from the heaviness of egg pasta.
Calabrian pasta or Southern Italian pasta also fits perfectly in any vegetarian diet or vegan diet and can be part of a healthy cooking style if made with healthy pasta sauces that contain large amounts of vegetables, fat free meat, little oil and the avoidance of those pre made pasta sauces which contain artificial additives and large quantities of salt.
HISTORY OF PASTA
Ancient Rome was the birthplace of fresh pasta (pasta fresca),which was made by adding water to semolina-flour. This vital ingredient is made from durum wheat, a thriving crop in Italy’s temperate climate. Unlike the dried pasta found at your local grocery store today, fresh pasta was meant to be eaten immediately. The Arab invasions of Sicily in the 8th Century are thought to be the origins of dried pasta (pasta secca). At the time, Palermo was producing mass quantities of the new product. Some Arabian influence can still be found in select recipes, using ingredients such as raisins and cinnamon.
In the 1300’s, dried pasta became very popular for use on long nautical expeditions because of its shelf-life and nutrition. These voyages contributed to pasta’s worldwide appeal and led to advances in its form and technology. Back in Italy, pasta was slowly migrating north to Naples and reached its destination in the 17th Century. A few historical events boosted pasta to a national icon. It became a kitchen staple during the Risorgimento (Italian Unification) in the mid 1860’s. Italian political and military figure Giuseppe Garibaldi introduced the country to La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte I Mangiar bene, a cookbook written in 1891 by Pellegrino Artusi that featured pasta. Tomato sauce was introduced to Italy in the 19th Century but was met with skepticism. The tomato, being a member of the nightshade family, was considered inedible in many regions; fortunately, those rumors were put to rest shortly thereafter. The last major event to influence pasta’s early history was the Italian Diaspora, a mass migration of Italians from their country in the time between the Unification and World War I. These times of hardship led Italians to take even more pride in refining the art of cooking.
TYPES OF PASTA
There are two major classifications: pasta fresca (fresh) and pasta secca (dried). From here, there are more than 400 unique types of pasta: sheets, strips, long strands, cylinders, unique shapes, flavors, and many other local varieties. There are more names for pasta than the mind can retain, yet all are made from the same basic ingredients — 100% durum wheat and water with a specific percentage of acidity and humidity under Italian law. Varying from the basics, light flavors and colors can be added to pasta with egg yolk, spinach, tomato paste, chocolate, and even squid ink. Each of these pastas creates its own unique dining experience when properly served. Another crucial aspect of the experience is pasta being married with an appropriate, complimentary sauce. The individual shape and texture given to pasta can be somewhat of a code in determining the proper sauce. A simple rule of thumb would be as follows: thick pasta = thick sauce, light pasta = light sauce.
Pasta fresca, the starting point of all pastas, is created with higher humidity, and some types only exist in this category. Variations can often be regional. Northern Italy is known to use all-purpose flour and eggs, while southern Italy uses the standard semolina and water mixture. Reputed to have the best pasta fresca in Italy, the Emilia-Romagna region often serves fresh pasta with cream sauces. Another regional variation could be found in Piedmont where butter and black truffles are a common ingredient. Other ingredients vary, from potatoes to ricotta.
Special tools are used when making dried pasta. First, the pasta is forced through holes in a die-plate and onto sheets for cutting. The next step is drying. Pasta secca is only considered real pasta if it is made in the proper Italian way, slow-drying it for upwards of fifty hours in a copper mold, and then in the open air. The rest of the world usually dries pasta in steel molds at extremely high temperatures for short periods of time, resulting in an inferior product. Italians take pride in their method and can be proud of a smoother tasting, quicker cooking pasta that can hold on to its sauce.
NUTRITIONAL VALUE: FAT OR SKINNY?
Pasta’s fortunes have fluctuated over its long history: it has been considered both a luxury food (in the sixteenth century, Neapolitan authorities prohibited its consumption in times of famine or scarcity of wheat) and a vernacular staple. Commonly perceived as a poor man’s food at the beginning of the twentieth century, pasta began, with the support of nutritionists extolling the virtues of the Mediterranean diet in the 1970s, to experience a rehabilitation. New nutrition guidelines (and the food chart reformulated in the 1990s) recommend less protein, less saturated animal fat, more fiber, and more complex carbohydrates. Pasta, therefore, is now recognized to be a healthy food. It is also a highly versatile, immediately satisfying food, recommended for athletes (“carbo-loading” sustains energy before strenuous sports) and even for refined palates.
Vegetables, lean meats, or fish, combined with good quality (even enriched or whole wheat) pasta, makes an excellent, balanced meal. Components of pasta include moisture (water), energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and ash. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin (1981), nutrient values for one cup of spaghetti (two ounces uncooked) are approximately seven to fourteen grams of protein, thirty-nine grams of carbohydrates, and when enriched, it provides calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. The caloric value of one cup of cooked pasta is approximately 190 calories (if al dente ) and 155 (if tender).
Pasta trends take place within wider social and nutritional contexts. There has been a move toward whole foods and alternative grains such as corn, buckwheat, and spelt. Innovative ingredients—some restaurant-driven—include colored pasta (tomato, herb, beet, mushroom, shrimp, even chocolate) and novelty-stuffed pasta (seafood, artichoke, dried tomato). There has also been a trend toward fusion cuisines, for example, blending East and West. New health guidelines advise lower fat, higher fiber, increased vegetarianism, less processing. The American trend toward greater convenience favors ready-cooked, frozen, microwaveable, and cold-serve pastas, although the Slow Food movement is beginning to counter this trend in the new millennium. Americans are becoming more sophisticated in regard to better quality products, taste, nutritional value, authenticity, seasonality, and the artisan tradition.
IMMIGRANTS AND PASTA
Neapolitans and other southern Italians were critical to pasta’s diffusion throughout the world. For it was as much immigration—and the majority of immigrants were, in fact, Neapolitan and southern—as technological advances and transatlantic trade, that brought pasta to the world’s attention. Along with the wave of late-nineteenth-century immigrants came shiploads of spaghetti in blue wrap (for example, Napoli Bella and Vesuvio brands), olive oil, and condensed tomato paste. Americans first considered these inedible foreign foods and tried to reform the newcomers’ diet, but spaghetti won out and eventually became American, not merely ethnic, fare. Italian immigrants were to introduce many other cultures to pasta wherever they settled.
Although Thomas Jefferson, much interested in macaroni and pasta technology, brought cases of the foodstuff to America in 1786 (and later had a pasta machine shipped to him from Campania), it was not until 1848 that it began to be produced commercially in America. The World War I years and the interruption of pasta imports from overseas gave rise to an expanded pasta industry in the United States, as many Italian-American pasta importers became manufacturers, through small family operations, many of which still exist. Prohibition may have given pasta a boost as well, since it seemed a logical accompaniment to speakeasy wine. In the expanding pasta industry of the 1930s, pasta ceased to be merely Italian and became an American food.
PASTA AS EMBLEM
Ethnic stereotyping frequently makes reference to food. Italians have long been associated with pasta, and Italians from different regions represent themselves by the type of pasta they eat. In England, from approximately 1750 to 1850, a “macaroni” referred to a foppish Englishman, a dandy, who affected foreign (Italian) style by over-dressing, wearing a preposterous wig, and perhaps eating foreign foods (for example, Yankee Doodle Dandy who “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni” and the London gentlemen’s club, The Macaroni Club). On the negative side, a cultured Italian might have referred to a simpleton or country bumpkin as a gnocco, maccarone, or spaghetto. Sicilians—later Neapolitans—were derogatorily labeled mangiamaccheroni (macaroni-eaters) by Italians farther north. Americans have referred to Italians as “Spaghetti Benders.” And Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto did not help matters when it declared war on traditional foods, especially pasta, a food which, the avant-garde insisted, promoted moral and physical laxity. The ideal, evidently, was the Germanic meat-eater, a virile warrior race. Italians ignored the Futurists’ cultural violence. Instead, Mussolini waged a battle on wheat (battaglia del grano ) in an attempt to make Italy wheat-sufficient. The vastly increased wheat acreage had the effect of shifting the epicenter of production northward (pasta producers included Agnesi in Oneglia, Buitoni in San Sepolcro, Barilla in Parma), thereby ending the dominance of Naples by the 1940s.
Many legendary Italian pasta-eaters have helped raise the image of this food: Rossini, Caruso, Sophia Loren. Pasta iconography, old and new, traces its presence in cultural history, from early popular prints of Cuccagna or of Neapolitan pasta-eaters, to pasta advertisements, packaging, and film (for example, Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp, and in Italy, Totò, Sophia Loren)—all of which molded pasta’s image for millions.