Pasta is at the very heart of Italian cuisine and in many households, is consumed everyday. Most Italians sit at a table to eat with friends and family whether it be lunch or dinner. They also enjoy at least 3 courses: primi (first), secondi (second) and dolce (dessert). The primi will often be a risotto, soup or pasta.
For a food to be so diverse it still amazes us that pasta is made from simple ingredients. From humble flours to mountain waters, over the centuries, regions of Italy have developed their own techniques and recipes for making pasta. Families all over the country have been inspired to create their own shapes, which has resulted in a huge array of choice from the long, ribbon pastas, to the stuffed and shaped varieties. The joy of this is that it is often possible to discover a history, myth or story behind the origin of many pasta forms.
Traditionally there are quite distinct geographical boundaries between Southern and Northern Italy. Durum wheat, high in proteins, dominate southern pasta and many of the most ancient traditional pastas are made using semolina and water. Northern pastas are mostly made using a combination of wheat flour and egg since eggs were more readily available. However, today the boundaries are not always as clear-cut and in many areas of Italy you will find semolina being mixed with wheat flour, with egg or with water.
Traditional local pasta – Pizzoccheri
To add to the wonder of pasta, geographical boundaries and geology have to a modest extent, produced varieties of pasta that do not fit within the two distinct types. Instead people used what was available to create what have become uniquely regional pastas such as ‘Pizzoccheri‘.
Not far from Lake Cuomo in the steep, mountainous valleys of the Valtellina just north of Milan, foods are hearty and nearly always local. Referred to as ‘Pizzoccheri della Valtellina‘ this is a northern Italian pasta made using wholewheat durum semolina, buckwheat flour and durum wheat semolina. It is a type of short tagliatelle and is distinguished by a hearty flavor and coarse texture. It is traditionally served with potatoes, savoy cabbage which is sautéed with the cooked pasta in butter, garlic and fresh sage leaves. Swiss chard or green beans serve as seasonal alternatives. A very rich, typically mountainous dish enough to keep anyone warm and satisfied.
The tradition of Pizzoccheri derives from the widespread use of buckwheat as a key ingredient in the local cuisine which makes it a perfect example of pasta created outside of the norm.
The first document to certify the use of buckwheat in Valtellina dates back to 1616, but it was only during the Nineteenth century that crops also became widespread in what were essentially unproductive areas. The first more precise written evidence attesting to the production of Pizzoccheri turns up in the Province of Sondrio and can be found in several inventories from 1750, which describe
“…una scarella per li Pizzoccheri e il rodelino per li ravioli…”
and in 1775,
“…le resene per li Pizzoccheri”.
There are many more documents from the following centuries that confirm the link between Pizzoccheri della Valtellina and the Province of Sondrio and so the origins of Pizzoccheri can be declared and claimed with certainty.
What flour do I use for making pasta?
Whole wheat durum
Durum is a variety of wheat and is the hardest of all wheat. It has a higher protein and gluten content than other kinds of wheat and that is why it is most often used to make pasta.
Whole wheat of any variety is wheat that contains all three parts of the wheat grain: the germ, bran and endosperm.
Whole wheat, whether durum or another variety, is more nutritious than its refined counterparts, because it contains the nutrient-rich germ and bran that are otherwise stripped away during the refining process.
When durum wheat is milled, its endosperm is ground up into a product called semolina, which is a yellow, coarse ground flour similar to the texture of grits.
Semolina is mixed with water to create a thick dough that is extruded through the holes of bronze dies to create the array of different pasta shapes. In fact, semolina is the best flour to use when making pasta shapes by hand too, as it holds its form better than the more finely ground durum flour.
It is the naturally rich yellow color of the durum endosperm that gives pasta its golden color.
Durum flour is the more finely ground version of semolina and is more suited for making egg pasta. We use durum for making lasagna, fettuccine and pappardelle pasta because it gives the dough a silky smooth texture that is difficult to achieve when using semolina.
We extruded pappardelle to demonstrate the difference between the outcome when using semolina or durum. The semolina is on the right and you can see little white marks. This is because it is very difficult to achieve the right consistency for smooth, velvety looking pasta when using semolina. This is when durum flour works best.
What flour do I use for making pasta?
The effect of migration and the intensification of communications, has transformed this once humble dough from being strictly local to being international – we speak from some experience.
Nowadays, from speaking to people all over Italy, the choice of flour for making pasta comes down to personal taste as recipes are exchanged and improved upon. We have yet to walk into a home and find the same pasta recipe being made as the one next door.
In 1967, in order to maintain the traditions of pasta making, Italy passed a law imposing the use durum wheat semolina in the production of dry pasta (Law n.580 of 1967 and amendments). However, there has been recent authorization to sell pasta made from soft or mixed wheat which has led to the introduction of low quality pasta brands in our supermarkets that do not respect the ancient art of pasta making and are not comparable to real Italian pasta. One of the reasons that Pasta Nostra USA was conceived.
The choice of flour contributes to an immense variety of dough and everyone seems to have their favorites. That includes The Pasta Maker who has tended towards Italian law and a ‘Molise’ style of egg pasta which appears to be a hit with our pasta lovers. For our vegan pasta, to emulate the Italian artisan pasta makers, we use only Florida spring water with durum or semolina flour depending on the type of pasta we are creating.
DO’S AND DON’TS OF PASTA MAKING
Many of you embarking on making pasta at home, first of all good for you! It’s a great way to get kids involved in kitchen and come together as a family. The Pasta Maker has experience involving children in pasta making and has this to say:
“Anyone who tells you that kids would rather be doing a whole load of other things, obviously hasn’t shared a pasta making session with kids! It truly is a joy to behold.”
Avoid using any flour with the words ‘all-purpose‘ on the packaging. If you want to enjoy your pasta just like they do in Italy, follow Italian law and make it the way the Italians do. This means using semolina or durum flour and if you have to add a white flour at all, use only Tipo 00 or the alternative Swans Down cake flour.
Avoid using water from the tape unless a large percentage of the population agree that it is better than bottled water. We are based in Florida and so use Zephyrhills natural spring water. Water does make a difference.
Finally and most importantly, our advise to you is to have fun. In our experience, if you are not having fun, or your heart is not in it, then nothing will turn out right. Fun is love and love is the most important ingredient for making pasta.