“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”
– Federico Fellini
A couple of years ago, I traveled to Bologna to visit a cousin. Based a little ways outside the main city, the family home was situated amidst a gently rolling landscape populated with apricot trees and vineyards. While I was there, I thought to myself that if I ever left the United States for retirement, it might just be to Italy. The weather was wonderful – hot enough to make you want to swim but not hot enough to be unbearable and the food was out of this world! There were a number of firsts on that trip, including my first taste of limoncello. However, one of my most memorable food experiences was tasting fresh tortellini made by a lady just down the road.
Legend has it that tortellini was designed to look like Venus’ navel. A lot of the pastas that I have seen here in the States – you would think she had the biggest bellybutton known to man. When I saw the tortellini in Bologna, however, I could understand where this legend had come from – small, delicate and perfectly formed, these tortellini definitely looked like they could be modeled after a bellybutton. Appearance aside, however, it was the taste that was truly memorable – tender and flavorsome, these little nuggets of deliciousness were simply served with a dash of cream.
Here at the shop, we can special order fresh pasta for folks but I know this is not always a viable option since we need at least a day’s notice. Sometimes it’s just handy to have a good dried pasta in the larder for spontaneous pasta-making.
As well, fresh pasta (pasta fresco) and dried pasta (pasta secca) are really two different beasts. Traditionally, fresh pasta is made with wheat flour, egg and sometimes a bit of water or wine. Pasta secca, on the other hand, is made simply with durum semolina and water.
Since working at Formaggio Kitchen, I have become a devotee of Poschiavo pasta. This pasta comes to us from Grigioni canton in Switzerland where it is made by the Fisler family. The Fislers have run Molino e Pastificio Poschiavo since 1900 and use very high quality, hard durum wheat. In fact, Poschiavo pasta looks almost like whole wheat pasta – it is light brown in color with flecks of wheat.
I generally get Poschiavo’s spaghetti – unless I am having capellini or angel hair pasta, I tend to like my tubular pastas on the thicker side which this spaghetti is. When cooked, Poschiavo has a nice mouthfeel – offering good resistance, it’s never mushy. This spaghetti is possibly the most flavorful dried pasta I have ever tasted – it’s savory with a slight nuttiness.
As I sit here typing, Eric, our beer buyer and grillmaster, just passed by and we began chatting pasta. He is another of the many Poschiavo devotees here at the shop, lauding the fact that it is “forgiving and easy to work with” and that it “soaks up the sauce” really well, even while retaining its firm texture. Whereas I generally get the spaghetti, Eric tells me that his Poschiavo of choice is their ternetta which he likes because he makes a lot of pasta Alfredo and finds the flat shape particularly conducive to maximizing the conveyance of sauce to the mouth.
A recent challenger to Poschiavo in my larder is a brand new pasta we have just started bringing in: Gioie di Fattoria. Just a moment ago, fellow colleague, Erin, sat down next to me here in the office and, as I did with Eric a short while before, began chatting pasta. With enthusiasm, she relayed to me that she recently took home Gioie di Fattoria’s ceppe pasta. As a hot winter meal, she prepared it with a mixture of simple crushed tomatoes and some of Julie’s housemade sweet Italian sausage. When I asked about cheese, she added with a grin that the dish was topped with “a lot” of our Parmigiano Reggiano. Thing is – the pasta didn’t need any accoutrements – Erin confided, “it was so good, we were eating it out of the pot!”
Gioie di Fattoria pasta is made by Giulio Amadio and is organically produced in the town of Controguerra in the Teramo province of Northern Abruzzo (just below Le Marche). Giulio grows a lot of different products – from beans, to wheat – and he turns his wheat into pasta. He uses an ancient and traditional wheat variety called Saragolla which is an ancestor of modern durum wheat cereals. It was introduced to the Abruzzo region by people who emigrated from Egypt in 400AD. The Persian word ‘zarg’ for ‘sun’ became ‘sarg’ meaning ‘yellow.’ The ending ‘-golla’ comes from the word ‘golyo,’ meaning ‘stone’ or ‘seed.’ I am told that Saragolla has many of the characteristics of Kamut wheat, including a higher content of proteins and minerals.
Giulio also grows a particular type of farro called Livesa Rossa which he turns into flour and pasta. Our Cambridge wine buyer, Gemma, met Giulio when visiting a vineyard across the way from his farm and she swears this is the best farro pasta she’s ever had. Tim, monger, buyer and webmaster here at the shop, recently took home the farro spaghetti and served it with a simple ragu made with tomato sauce, carrots and browned beef. Topping it all off? Shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. When I asked how he found the pasta, Tim remarked to me that it held together really well – unlike other farro pastas he has had – and that the flavor was deliciously hearty and nutty.
At this time of year, a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano is pretty standard in my fridge – pasta being one of my favorite hot winter meals. Quick and tasty (particularly with good basic ingredients) it is a cinch to put together. Branching out from the basics, I am keen to try a couple of recipes from Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano cookbook – his spaghetti with caramelized onions, anchovies and toasted bread crumbs or his baked pasta with ricotta and ham. As always seems to be the case: too many recipes, too little time. Maybe when I retire to Italy, I will have time to make them all. Meantime, I will mine the amazing dried pastas we are importing to the shop!