By Francesca Bezzone
Do you really know everything about pasta?
No! Not another article about Italy and pasta, I hear you crying. Worry not, this time we’re going to tackle the “pasta issue” from an entirely different angle. Many angles in fact, as we’ll find out some little known historical, culinary and scientific – yes, scientific – curiosities about our nation’s most versatile kitchen staple. In truth, pasta can be rather mysterious. Take its origins for example: Italian children, yours truly included, was told in school that one of the many wonders Marco Polo brought back from China was spaghetti. In my own little child’s imagination, Polo returned to Venice with a plate of pasta al pomodoro like the one my grandma would make, an idea I would find quite amusing indeed. Then you come of age and all your childhood’s certainties crumble, including that about Marco Polo and spaghetti coming from China; Italian cuisine historians, you read, are pretty adamant pasta is a native food of Italy, very likely of Sicily, where it became popular in the early Middle Ages thanks to the Arabs. And where is the truth? Well, where it often is, in the middle. It is very likely that long, string like varieties of pasta were enjoyed both in China and Southern Italy, where the tradition developed independently. But you know what? Things are even more complicated than that, because if we really want to be precise and extend the concept of pasta to include “all” pasta and not only spaghetti like types, then the Greeks and the Romans may have a thing or two to say about it, too. Rome had a penchant for the lagana, a sheet of thin dough made with flour, water and herbs, then fried. If that term, lagana, reminds you of our very own lasagne, you’re right: to many food historians, the Roman fried pasta sheet is its ancestor.
Where is it from?
It is very likely that long, string like varieties of pasta were enjoyed both in China and Southern Italy, where the tradition developed independently
And if we’re quick to associated pasta with the beautiful city of Naples, where it turned into a local treasure in the 16th century (sans tomato sauce though: that was added only in the 1800s), we often forget that another queen of the seas, Genoa, had been producing dried pasta since the 13th century. The Genoese were the best seamen on Earth and they knew a thing or two about how to live and eat on a ship: dried pasta never spoils and can be eaten with anything, the perfect grub when you have no opportunity to get fresh food off land for months. Genoa, early home of pasta in Italy: not so surprising, then, that the most iconic pasta sauce along with pummarola is pesto alla Genovese. History loves pasta, but science does, too. In a recent article published on the online version of Italian history monthly Focus Storia, chemistry expert Dario Bressanini stated we’ve been cooking it wrong.
How to cook pasta
Now, how to cook pasta properly could be the topic of a 300 page long doctoral dissertation, as there are millions of different opinions. Around the world, that is. In Italy, pasta is cooked one way: we wait for the water boiling, add salt – better if coarse – then the pasta, stir and drain it when it’s al dente. Bressanini, however, disagrees: he says water doesn’t need to be boiling, and that pasta starts cooking when the water reaches about 80 degree Celsius (or 176 F), 8 minutes after you put it in the pan. At that stage, you add salt and pasta, cover the pan with a lid and wait for the water to boil; when it does, turn off the gas, wait seven minutes and voilà, pasta is ready. It may be scientific, but I don’t know how I feel about that. More interesting, and useful for us all, may be finding out how to recognize a good pasta from a dodgy one that turns into glue as soon as it touches the water. According to nutritional science, we should look for three specific parameters: quantity of proteins, trafilatura (the wire-drawing of pasta) and the temperature it is dried at. The first two can be easily checked on the pasta’s packet, where we should look for a percentage of proteins upwards of 10.5% for regular pasta and 11.5% for wholewheat pasta. When it comes to trafilatura, brass wire-drawn pasta is to be always preferred: if it’s made that way, you can rest assured the packet is likely to mention it. Finding out about drying temperatures is not as simple, but essential to understand how nutritious our noodles really are. Last thing, check the water where you boil it: the clearer it is, the better the pasta.
History and science behind pasta
History and science have a bit of a soft spot for pasta, it’s clear, but not everyone does or did. Arthur Schopenhauer, immense Romantic philosopher, called it the “food of those who gave up,” but it was the Partito Fascista Italiano to declare war on pasta (among other things). Mussolini thought pasta made people sleepy and lazy and was supported by the Tommaso Marinetti, the father of Italian Futurism, the artistic and literary current that exalted technology and strength as signs of the ever evolving nature of Mankind. Marinetti accused pasta to have mollified Italians, putting at risk the purity of their nature and their nobility. Now, you may be happy to know that Marinetti and his Futurist friends did suggest some culinary alternatives to the nation’s favorite lunch in their Manifesto della Cucina Futurista, where we are told food has to be matched with music and scents, cutlery is useless and dishes had improbable names like carneplastico, aeroporto piccante and rombi in ascesa. Pasta, as popular as it is, still has a story or two to tell. Love it or hate it, it remains the best.