22 Nov Pasta – the symbol of Italian cuisine
Pasta is the most popular main course in the world, symbol of the Italian culture and national pride. This is why for Italians is so important that pasta is properly prepared. It is more than a food, it is an element of union shared throughout Italy: it is an integral part of life, of popular culture (simple but traditional) of all Italians, not only of their cuisine, but of their very essence. Pasta means tradition, the symbol of Italian cuisine always and forever.
The origins of pasta are very old. It all began when the man abandoned the nomadic life, he learned to sow and gather and became a farmer. It is at that time that the history of man marries and intersects with that of wheat and with wheat begins the history of pasta. From harvest to harvest, from generation to generation, man has learned to work wheat better and better by milling it, mixing it with water, smoothing it into thin doughs and cooking it on a hot stone.
The first indication of the existence of something similar to pasta dates back to the first millennium BC, and is to be attributed to the Greek civilization.
The Greek word laganon was used to indicate a large, flat sheet of striped pasta. From laganon comes from Latin laganum, which Cicero cites in his writings. Laganas and pasta sheets conquered the empire and, as often happens, every people adapted the news to their experiences.
The first two certain dates in the history of pasta in Italy are: 1154, when in a sort of ante litteram tourist guide the Arab geographer Al-Idrin mentions “a food of flour in the form of threads”, called triyah (from the Arab itrija, which survives in the modern language and derives from the root tari = wet, fresh), which was made in Palermo and exported in barrels throughout the peninsula; and 1279, when the Genoese notary Ugolino Scarpa draws up the inventory of the objects left by a deceased sailor, among whom there is also a “bariscela plena de macaronis”. We know that Marco Polo returned from China in 1295: the legend is so dispelled that it was he who introduced the pasta (the one known in China, however, had little to do with that of durum wheat typical of our country) in Italy.
The Arabs of the desert were the first to dry the pasta for long-term preservation, since in their peregrinations they did not have enough water to make fresh pasta every day. Thus pasta cylinders were pierced in the middle to allow rapid drying. When? The oldest document consists of the cookbook of ‘Ibn’ al Mibrad (IX century), where it appears a very common dish among the Bedouin and Berber tribes, still known today in Syria and Lebanon: it is the rista, that is dried macaroni seasoned in various ways, but above all with lentils.
The drying allowed the pasta to tackle long sea routes, for which the Genoese traders were mainly specialized. They were usually and locally called fidellari, as fidelli was the name given to the spaghetti in this area of the Italian North-West. Whereas in the rest of Italy continued to be called vermicelli, the same ones that later will take the name of spaghetti. So Liguria became a place of production of huge quantities of dried pasta, while Emilia-Romagna, Lombardia, Basilicata and Veneto will remain tied to the use of fresh pasta that still persists.
It was in the Middle Ages that the first Italian shops were built for the professional preparation of pasta, which from southern Italy, impregnated with Arab culture, moved towards the rest of the peninsula, North Africa, the Middle East, the Spanish East Coast and the rest of Europe. Already in the mid-thirteenth century large pasta factories were installed especially in Naples, Genoa and Salerno, cities that will then have a large participation in the evolution and success of pasta. Later they also opened in Puglia and Tuscany and in the fourteenth century were established the first Corporations Of Italian Pasta, controlled and regulated by the Pope, whose Vatican letters regulate the shopkeepers, and established between 1300 and 1400 that, especially in the city of Rome, there could not be less than 50 meters between a pasta shop and the other, to avoid quarrels between traders; documents that clearly showed how the art of pasta was enormously spread throughout Italy at that time.
Although the manufacturing process has greatly changed over the years, the product has remained the same simple mixture of durum wheat semolina and water. While fresh pasta is also prepared with soft wheat flour, only durum wheat semolina is used for dry pasta in Italy. Durum wheat and soft wheat are two varieties of the most widespread cereal in the world: wheat. Both are grown in Italy and the difference is very important. The Italian law also notes it, stating that to produce dry pasta only durum wheat semolina can be used. This is because durum wheat semolina contains that tough gluten that allows dry pasta to keep the perfect cooking and to remain al dente.
Every year in Italy about 3.3 million tons of pasta are produced. Except for the small artisanal pasta factories, there are more than 139 pasta factories in Italy: 58 in northern Italy, 30 in central Italy, more than 50 in southern Italy. The regions where there is a greater production of pasta at national level are:
- Campania (in particular the cities and provinces of Naples and Salerno)
- Emilia Romagna (in particular the cities and provinces of Bologna and Parma)
- Liguria (in particular the city and the provinces of Genoa)
Today, more and more people suffer from food intolerances. For this reason, special pastas such as gluten-free pasta are very popular and spread all over the world. These kinds of pasta are designed for both celiacs and those who want to change their diet with products other than the classic durum wheat semolina pasta. It is indeed important to introduce alternative cereals to the grain in order to make the diet richer and less monotonous. The alternatives to wheat pasta are now very numerous: rice pasta, corn, buckwheat, peas, millet, quinoa, amaranth, sorghum, oats. Zero additives: only flour, water and lots of flavor.
Nowadays there are many varieties of pasta that can be found today on the market, which differ in shapes, colors, flavors as well as for type of production. Depending on the shape, they can be grouped in the following categories:
- long pasta
- with a round section like vermicelli, spaghetti, …
- with a perforated section such as bucatini, ziti, …
- with a rectangular or lens section such as trenette, linguine, …
- thick-wide like lasagne, reginette, …
- pasta in nests or hanks
- thick-wide like pappardelle, tagliatelle, …
- with a reduced thickness such as capellini, tagliolini, fettuccine, …
- short pasta
- long as rigatoni, sedani, fusilli, penne, garganelli, …
- mediums like pipe, conchiglie, orecchiette, …
- small pasta, pasta for soups such as quadrucci, stars, …
- stuffed pasta such as tortellini, ravioli, agnolotti, cannelloni, …
- fantasy pastas of very different and unusual shapes
Depending on the type of surface, pasta can be divided in two more categories:
- smooth, appreciated for lightness
- striped, appreciated for its ability to retain sauces
Moreover, by adding particular ingredients to the mixes it is possible to give the various formats also different colors:
- red with boiled red turnips or tomato paste
- orange with cooked carrots or pumpkin
- yellow with saffron or curry dissolved in a little warm water
- light blue with spirulina algae
- green with boiled spinach, basil or parsley just blanched
- brown with bitter cocoa
- purple with blueberry juice and pulp
- black with sepia ink
The taste of pasta is given by an able combination of flour and aromas. In addition to soft wheat flour and durum wheat semolina which are the most used, many others can be used such as spelled, rice, barley, chestnuts, buckwheat etc. In the choice of flour, it is essential to keep in mind their gluten content because it influences the resistance of the dough and the resistance to cooking that increase proportionally to it. In fact, during cooking, the two gliadin and glutenin proteins contained in the flour are bound to water, forming a kind of net. The proteins of the semolina form a tightly knit network imprisoning the starch that would make the pasta sticky; those of soft wheat flour form a wide-meshed net that hardly retains the starch of the dough which will tend to overcook.
The term aromas includes all the ingredients that can be mixed into the dough making it more flavorful. First for importance, egg: in addition to enriching the flavor, it has the ability to bind to the particles of flour and other ingredients, making the dough sticky, easier to form and of greater consistency after cooking; immediately after, the extra virgin olive oil which gives the mixture elasticity and plasticity; third is the salt, that helps to strengthen the glutinous mesh, while stiffening the dough a bit. Beyond these there is a long series of foods as varied as the imagination: breadcrumbs, cheese, various dried or fresh herbs, spices, chilli, …
Pasta is a common food all over the world. Outside Italy, however, our culinary rituals are twisted, and here we find ourselves in front of a pasta topped with ketchup and maybe placed next to a steak as a side dish. Here are some simple tips to help foreigners who want to avoid mistakes in the preparation of pasta.
- Use a big saucepan so that pasta has enough water to rehydrate (for every 100 g of dry pasta 1 liter of water is required).
- Dip pasta at once and mix it immediately, thus avoiding sticking.
- Long pasta like spaghetti, in particular, should never be broken, but gradually dipped in the pot, as it softens. Only when the water has reached the boiling point, add twelve grams of coarse salt per liter of water and wait, before throwing pasta, that it is dissolved perfectly and that the water resumes boiling. Leave the saucepan open and continue cooking on low heat, stirring frequently.
- The cooking time depends on the size and format of pasta. For example, a dough with a striped surface will have longer cooking times than a dough with a smooth surface. The most important thing for us Italians is to cook it “al dente”: because on the palate should not be neither too uncooked nor overcooked. Therefore it is always good to follow the manufacturer’s notes on the package and taste pasta a few moments before draining it. As soon as it has reached the correct cooking point, pour a ladle of cold water into the saucepan to stop cooking immediately, then drain it.
- When it is time to serve it, always warm the dish with boiling water (unless it is a pasta to be served cold) and dry it well before pouring the pasta. Finally, season the pasta with a portion of the sauce and serve the remaining, very hot, in a gravy boat.
In Italy pasta is mainly served in four ways:
- Pasta asciutta (or pastasciutta) – pasta boiled and served hot, accompanied by sauces of various kinds
- Pasta soup – small pasta, boiled in meat or vegetable broth and served hot mainly at dinner time
- Baked pasta – oven-baked pasta such as lasagne, cannelloni, etc.
- Cold pasta – pasta previously cooked and seasoned with fresh vegetables and pickles and then cooled, ideal on hot summer days.
Condiments are dresses in color and flavor specifically cut to size for the type of pasta you want to season. They include very different preparations, both for the components and for the cooking techniques: sauces and meat sauce, béchamel, cheese fondues and reductions of cream, raw vegetables, meat or vegetable broths, etc. Undisputed protagonist of all the condiments is tomato that, becoming part of numerous preparations, has contributed to the success of the most famous dish of our cuisine and is now considered the “classic” accompaniment. Whatever the seasoning, it has to be in the end rightly creamy, not watery or too dry.
How to say no to a good plate of pasta? Leave the guilt aside, because it is not true that pasta makes you fat. The widespread thought that pasta makes you fat is a “myth” to dispel. An average serving, equal to 70-80 grams, contains about 300-350 calories and zero fat, so it is an absolutely healthy food.
The difference is given by the quantity that is consumed and obviously by the type of seasoning that is added. You could eat pasta every day, for lunch and dinner: but only if you keep in the indicated order of 70-80 grams, and it is seasoned with vegetables and a spoon of extra virgin olive oil, you will not gain weight. The advice is to eat pasta at lunch, combining vegetables and protein sources such as legumes or fish.
Finally we review the most frequent errors that are made abroad in the preparation of pasta, providing some simple guidelines to avoid them.
- Eat pasta exclusively with a fork, do not cut it with a knife and do not roll it with a spoon.
- Italians never rinse pasta with cold water after draining it.
- The sauce should be immediately added to the pasta just drained and mixed.
- Another delicate subject is the use of cheese on pasta. Italians do not use Emmental or Gruviera, but only Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano and, if the recipe allows it, salted pecorino. Cheese has absolutely to be avoided on pasta with fish or seafood.
- Pasta is a complete dish in itself, the first dish par excellence. Never use it as an accompaniment to another dish, such as steak or chicken.
- Ketchup should not be used to season pasta, in case you do not have anything in the fridge just drizzle extra-virgin olive oil on it and add a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano.
- Carbonara is one of the most twisted recipes abroad. Beaten egg, bacon, parmesan and pepper are the only ingredients allowed by the original recipe.
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