Story by Manos Angelakis and Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
To those that still believe that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy in 1294, I have one word to say “poppycock”.
Pasta, or as the Romans called it “maccheroni” was a staple in Imperial Rome, about 1,000 years before the return to Venice of Marco Polo from Cathay i.e. China. During that time, the mixing of wheat flour and water to create dough was a delicacy reserved mostly for the aristocracy and it was baked -- not boiled. As Imperial Rome grew, keeping the masses fed became crucial, for as everyone knows, a hungry population leads to revolution. Great quantities of wheat were imported from North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Syria, and Spain, and stored in huge silos. During the 1st to the 4th century, the grain flour was distributed to the poor in a grand show of Imperial beneficence, thereby gaining loyalty through full stomachs. The flour was mixed with water, rolled into sheets, cut into long strips, boiled, and consumed in a rather uncouth and messy way with the hands. We could call this fresh, as apposed to dried pasta. Roman pasta has little relationship to our modern dry pasta but it clearly shows that the process of mixing wheat flour and water to create a food was practiced in the kitchens of ancient Rome; it was not a transplant from the Orient.
Today, the average Italian consumes over sixty pounds of dry pasta per person, per year, with Americans far behind, consuming only a measly twenty pounds. And Italian housewives still make fresh pasta by hand for special occasions; we enjoyed Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale at the Maremma Maritima a few months ago.
But dry pasta today is no longer just a mixture of wheat flour and water. Other, different grains from around the world are also currently used to create pasta, in addition to the wheat flour. Additionally, there are flavored pastas with various add-ins such as vegetable purées, eggs, and herbs and spices that are added during production. The homemade version of this pasta is so flavorful that it barely requires a sauce; just toss it with olive oil and a little cheese.
Through the years, we have tried different kinds of pasta. Generally, the coloring of pasta results from the flavoring agent used.
Whole wheat flour enhances the natural nutty flavor of basic pasta. It must be mixed with an all-purpose flour to make the dough workable. To increase the flavor and color, producers experimented with mixing a larger portion of whole wheat flour than all-purpose flour. The resulting color is tan to light brown. The taste is nutty.
Buckwheat pasta has a strong and nutty flavor. The mixture is 3 parts buckwheat flour to 1 part all-purpose flour and, sometimes, an egg-yolk is whisked into the water that is mixed with the flour. This helps make the dough smooth and workable. The color is light to medium brown.
To make Rice Noodles, rice flour is mixed with water to produce a translucent spaghetti. This is how Chinese Cellophane noodles are made.
In Southeast Asia mung bean starch and potato starch are combined to produce a flavorless noodle that takes the flavor of the food that it is combined with. It looks like cellophane noodles, but requires a much more flavorful sauce.
Most of the flavored pastas we are most familiar with are Spinach pasta, Tomato pasta, Beet pasta, Squid ink (or cuttlefish ink) pasta, or Carrot pasta. They have the color of the prime ingredient – medium to dark green for spinach, reddish for tomato, deep pink to dark red for beet, very dark grey or almost black for ink pasta, and orange for carrot.
Less frequently made but just as flavorful are Garlic and Herb pasta (cream colored with green flecks), Saffron pasta (bright yellow/gold color) and Lemon pasta (light yellow color with a tart lemony taste).
One doesn’t have to prepare home made pasta to have a variety of tastes and colors in a pasta dish. Commercially made pastas, prevalent in the U.S. and most other countries, both colored and white can be found nowadays in supermarkets and specialty food stores.
In addition to the well known utility dry pasta brands made from Durum Wheat and Semolina – Ronzoni, Barilla, San Giorgio etc. that are produced in the United States, there are numerous Italian pasta producers – Di Cecco, Colavita, Nona Dora and many others that are imported. Actually, in some ethnic markets like Greek, Ecuadorian and Thai, you will find dry pastas imported from those countries as well.
One of the most interesting products imported from Italy by Modena Fine Foods are the pastas of Pastificio Felicetti. Branded as Monograno Felicetti, they are made from organic Faro (Spelt) from Umbria, Matt Grain (a special variety of durum wheat) from Sicily and Puglia, Il Cappelli grown in organic farms in Puglia, and Khorasan Kamut organically grown in Montana and Canada. They are packaged in 500 gram (17.6 oz), cream colored boxes with a demi-lune window through which the actual pasta shape is seen.
The pasta’s texture is firm, with a light aroma of freshly made bread and hints of hay and baked stone fruit. The taste is mostly nutty, with chestnuts and pine nuts dominating. It comes in different shapes; we tried the spaghetti and linguini with a seafood (shrimps, shallots, scallions, garlic, oregano, lemon, olive oil) sauce and a meat (beef and lamb, fresh tomato, red onion, garlic, cumin, lemon, olive oil) sauce. We enjoyed both dishes very much.
© June 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.