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 Corkscrew  Share this article     Summary of Not Just Wine column  
  Not Just Wine Issue 6, March 2003   
PastaPasta Wine ParadeWine Parade ClassifiedClassified  Contents 
Issue 5, February 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 7, April 2003


The renowned food of the Mediterranean people is capable of creating savory dishes and it is essential for a correct and balanced nutrition



 Many centuries before Christs, when man abandoned nomad life, he started sowing and harvesting. The history of men accompanied the history of wheat, from generation to generation, man learned better and better to cultivate land and to make use of wheat, to mill it, to make a dough from it by using water, and to cook it over fire. Etruscans and Greeks were known to be consumers of pasta. “Leganon” was the Greek word which meaning was sheet of pastry cut in stripes, from which the Latin word “Laganum” originated, it was cited by Cicero and Horace 100 years before Christ. Slowly this new food began to conquer the empire. A more precise reference about pasta is dated 1154, when the Arab geographer “Al-Idrin”, in a kind of touristic guide, he mentions “a food made of flour and string shaped” called 'Triyah' (from the Arab word Itrija) which is exported from Palermo in casks all over the peninsula”.


 In some writing of the Genoese notary Ugolino Scarpa describing the inventory of a dead sailor, we find a paper where there was written “a cask full of macaroni”, it was 1279. This date is important because we know Marco Polo came back from China in 1295, therefore this contradict the legend which says “he was the one who introduced pasta to the western countries”. Moreover this legend is not believable because the pasta known in China had nothing in common with the one known in Italy which was made with durum wheat.

 It is believed pasta, in the form of macaroni, originated from Sicily where “it was prepared a food in the shape of strings”. The fact that in the Arab language existed a word to refer to this food, makes think it was an Arab invention. Unfortunately no document can prove this, indeed the word “macaroni” has not a precise etymology. Until 1700 there is lot of confusion, the many styles of pasta are classified as macaroni, until Neapolitans, which consumed a lot of pasta, made use of this term and used it to identify long string shaped pasta. The first pictures of the 1800's depict “macaronari” at the sides of streets being very busy on big pots while cooking and selling pasta seasoned with cheese and pepper.

 From this moment on macaroni, referred as long string shaped pasta, round and solid, will be called spaghetti and everyone in Italy will call this pasta like that, not just Neapolitans. It should be observed that pasta, in its simpler form, is a very ancient food which had rather independent origins. It seems not to be correct to talk about an invention, indeed it was just a normal use of a raw material. The “inventors” of the drying process were the Arab people living in the desert, as they had no plenty of water in order to make pasta everyday, they invented a way to pack it in cylinders and to subsequently dry them, in order to prolong its preservability.

 One of the most ancient cookbooks certainly is the one written by “'Ibn 'al Mibrad”, in the ninth century, where it is cited a very common dish among Berber tribes, which is still known in Syria and Lebanon, called Rista, a sort of pasta seasoned with lentils. In 1474 Bartolomeo Sacchi, historian and prefect of the Vatican library, wrote a cookbook where it is cited a drying technique in order to better preserve pasta.

 While in the regions with a dry and windy climate pasta was dried by leaving it in open air, in the northern regions of Italy they were “forced” to invent the “carousel”, a tool made of wood, placed in a warm room and wheeled by means of hydraulic force or by an animal, in order to dry pasta. In the 1500's masters of pasta began to associate and established corporations in the Italian cities where this activity was not flourishing and pasta makers could ally with bakers; these corporations became very powerful and they succeeded in imposing fines and body penalties to anyone who sold pasta and was not a baker. Another historical information, which is useful in understanding the spreading and the importance of this food, is found in a papal paper where Urbano VIII imposed a minimal distance of 24 meters (26 yards) from one pasta shop to another. It was 1641.

 Until 1700 pasta was produced without using any machinery, feet were the tools used to knead water and flour, and it was Ferdinand II, king of the Two Sicilies, to hire the scientist Cesare Spadaccini to create a mechanical process. Around the half of the 1800's were introduced hydraulic presses, steam machines and hydraulic force machines, but it was only in 1930 that was introduced the very first machine that could do all the work for the productive process. As the time passed by, the process of making pasta has drastically changed, however the product remained the same. In Italy fresh pasta is mainly made with wheat flour, whereas dried pasta is exclusively made with durum wheat flour. The difference between wheat flour and durum wheat flour is fundamental because only durum wheat flour contains the proper gluten which allows dried pasta to not overcook and to remain “al dente”.

 The literature often mentions pasta, among the many: “… and there was a mountain of ground Parmesan cheese and on it were a lot of people and the only thing they made were macaroni to be cooked in capon broth, and then they were throwing them down…”, from Boccaccio's Decamerone; moreover, “besides good manners, however, the aspect of those monumental pasta pies was worth of the best admiration. The browned gold of the outside, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon coming out from it, were just the prelude of the delicious sensation coming out from the inside, when the knife cut the crust: a dense smoke full of aromas came out first and then there could be seen chicken livers, hard eggs, ham, chicken and truffles in the unctuous mass, very hot, and short macaroni, to which meat extract gave them a precious deer color”, from Giuseppe Tomasi from Lampedusa's “Il Gattopardo”. Another interesting work is also the “Li macheroni di Napoli” (The macaronis of Naples) by Antonio Viviani. This poem is dated 1824 and it narrates in a poetic language, among the many things, the many phases of the pasta making and gives a good idea of the real Neapolitan situation of that time. It is important to notice that in this poem, for the first time, it is found the word “spaghetti”.

 In the beginning of the 1900 the literature is not interested in macaroni anymore, both as a literal argument and as a term, commonly replaced by words such as “pastasciutta” or “spaghetti”.

 In the 1500's pasta goes beyond the Italian border and starts spreading aboard. France was one of the first countries, also thanks to Caterina de'Medici and Platina who contributed to spread the cooking traditions of Italy. It is not clear how pasta arrived in England, however it is mentioned in a dictionary of that time. In the 1700's pasta was so spread and was used to title the comedy “the macaroni”.

 In the 1700's pasta also arrives in America and it is said statesman Jefferson, after a journey in Italy, wanted to buy the needed machineries for making pasta in order to have it known in its country. It is more likely that were Italian emigrants who stowed ships with spaghetti and macaroni to introduce pasta in that country. The spreading was very rapid and the main character of the 1700's ballad “Yankee Doodle” is depicted with a macaroni in the hat. Nowadays there are a number of “Spaghetti House” in America as well as a number of recipes made of pasta.


What is Pasta

 The kind of wheats used to make pasta are two: durum wheat (Triticum durum) and wheat (Triticum vulgare). The first one is milled in order to produce durum wheat flour and is mainly used to make pasta. The second one is milled and the flour is used to make homemade egg-pasta, as well as other recipes. At the sight these two kind of wheats does not show big differences, durum wheat's grain is a little longer and is more opaque, whereas the grain of wheat is opaque and rounder. Durum wheat grows in the sunny lands of Italy, whereas the other kind prefers a wet and calm climate such as the one of the Po Valley of north Italy. This is probably the reason why dried pasta is most consumed in south Italy whereas in the northern area egg-pasta is consumed the most.

 Until 1700 mills remained practically the same, it was used a millstone made of two flat stones, the lower was fixed to the ground and the upper, having a hole in the center, was wheeled. Wheat was poured on the central hole of the upper stone, it was wheeled and from its sides was obtained flour.

 The most important machine of the pasta factory was the kneading-machine. It was made of a round tank of wood and a vertical millstone which was wheeled, in the inside was put flour and lukewarm water and then the kneading process was started, in the beginning by hand and subsequently by means of this machine. This kind of machine had a defect: it crushed flour's grains and made the dough too elastic and scarcely resistant. In Naples another technique was used instead: the flour and hot water were initially kneaded by feet, then the process was continued with the kneading-machine. The next phase consisted in putting the dough in a container having a long pole in it, one side was in contact with the dough and on the other side were sitting 2 or 3 men, and by following the rhythm of a song, they stood up and sat down in order to lower and raise the pole which pressed and released the dough. This bizarre method allowed the flour's grains to tie one each other without any damage, and giving the dough the right granularity and softness which made it a superior product. The dough, no matter the way it was produced, was divided in little parts and put in a press where they were forcibly pressed against the die-plate, a bronze disc with holes according to the style of pasta to be produced, and the dough passed through it and was shaped accordingly.

 The consumption increase stimulated brilliant minds in order to find new solutions in order to help man in the process of production. In the 1800's were introduced the first kneading-machines, which replaced the work done by feet. The old presses that were manually wheeled were replaced by those operated by hydraulic force. However there still was a problem: the press, as it was emptied, when it reached the end of the course, it had to be pulled back and refilled. The problem was solved in 1917, when a certain Sandragné, by applying the technique used to make bricks, built a machine that, instead of using a piston to press the dough against the die-plate, made use of a continuous screw that, by working inside the dough, it could take it and press it without interruptions. Anyway it was the continuous press that was considered as the real step forward for the production of pasta, introduced in 1930, it allowed the kneading and the pressing of pasta against the die-plate without interrupting the production process.

 Even after these revolutions and improvements, the process still remained at an artisan level. The drying process was done by expert workers, by exposing or withdrawing, according to the meteorological conditions, the spaghetti that were hanged in long poles. Pasta factories located in regions having favorable climate conditions had, of course, an advantage over the other ones. In order to go beyond the artisan process and reach the industrial stage, we must wait for the artificial drying process to be invented. Only at this point pasta could be produced in every Italian region.

 Kneading-machines, presses and poles are not found in modern pasta factories anymore. A modern pasta factory is aseptic, with huge machineries and few persons in charge of controlling the production process which is done by robots that process wheat, from milling to the finished product ,in order to obtain spaghetti and macaroni ready to be consumed. Modern production processes have little or nothing to do with the older ones. Flour produced by the mill is “hydrated” with pure water, then the kneading process is done in a vacuum environment in order to prevent the formation of air bubbles in the dough and to obtain a softer and more brilliant dough. In this way starch and proteins melt with water and therefore gluten is being formed, a proteinic chain which keeps together hydrated starch grains. The dough therefore gets its typical aspect.

 At this point the dough is being pushed against die-plates where spaghetti are therefore obtained, they are grouped and hanged in poles ready to be transferred in drying rooms. The drying process lasts about 8 hours, until the humidity lowers to about 12.5%. The drying process varies according to the style of pasta to be made, it is very important because it gives pasta higher preservability, moreover stabilizes the raw materials while exalting organoleptic properties, as well as optimizing its characteristics for a good cooking. The process consists in ventilating pasta with a hot air stream, followed by a cooling process in order to have pasta at a room temperature. At this point pasta is ready to be packed.

 Because of the increasing diffusion pasta had, every region developed own recipes, with seasonings going from simple and light to more elaborate and rich. Pasta basically is a neutral ingredient and therefore is well suited to be used with seasonings of many styles, from sweet to salty, however there are some rules to know: long shaped pasta, thin and round are better suited for robust seasonings based on oil; short shapes pasta or egg-pasta is fine for sauces which make use of bechamel or heavy-cream.

 Properly cooking pasta is not difficult, provided some basic rules are being followed. Use a proper pan that must be sufficiently large. The height should be greater than the width and large enough to contain the right quantity of water, at least one liter (33.8 fl.oz.) for every 100 grams of pasta (3.5 oz), however it is better to use a greater quantity of water in order to allow pasta to open up and not to remain massed, moreover as the pasta is cooking, it needs a constant quantity of heat, and this is more easy to obtain with the proper quantity of water. As far as salt is concerned, the standard quantity is 10 grams (0.35 oz.) for every liter of water, to be added only when the water starts boiling. Before pouring pasta, wait for the salt to be completely dissolved and water to resume boiling. Cooking times, besides being a matter of personal preferences, vary according to the shape and the thickness of pasta. Pasta must be poured at once and in the center of the pan, stirred from time to time by using a wooden spoon or a carving-fork. As the pasta is properly cooked, before draining, it is better to pour a glass of cold water in the pan in order to stop cooking. It is better to serve pasta “al dente” because it is more digestible and it is preferable to add sauces and seasonings while it is still hot.

 The bad habit of cooking pasta in two different phases is to be avoided: the first cooking and the subsequent final cooking before being served will make pasta to lose elasticity and brilliantness.

 How to recognize good pasta? Qualitative factors are: hygiene of the packing, the area of origin of wheat, any possible additive, the characteristics of wheat and the production process. A good quality flour must have evenly sized grains and not excessively thin, because during the production process, as water is being added, a too thin flour would compromise the proteinic structure and therefore the consistency and the capacity of being cooked properly.

 A production phase apparently just connected to an aesthetical aspect is drawing which represents a very important process. Today many producers tend to replace the classical bronze die-plates with modern steel or Teflon die-plates. The final result is that a pasta drawn in bronze die-plates has a proper roughness that will keep sauces, a characteristic that cannot be obtained with steel or Teflon die-plates, which usually tend to exalt the brilliantness of the product.

 Times and methods for the drying process vary from six to eight hours, from 40° to 80° C. (104°-176° F). Currently there is the tendency to increase the drying temperature because it was observed that the overall structure of the product is improved and gets a better consistency during cooking.

 Before buying pasta, it is better to remember that a good dry pasta must be kept in a perfectly whole package, it must have a straw yellow color, there must not be white or black stains, the aspect must be homogeneous, there must not be any air bubble, it must have a pleasing taste and aroma, there must not be any molds, there must not be any larvae or parasites as well as extraneous bodies, and the pasta package must be kept in a cool and dry environment.

 A certain stickiness can be a sign of an imperfect production technology or a mixed flour made of wheat and durum wheat.


Some Nutrition Facts

 One hundred grams of pasta (3.5 oz.) has an energetic value of about 360 Kcal and contains about 73% of complex carbohydrates (starches), about 12% of proteins, about 12% of water, 2-3% of fibers, a negligible contents of fats, as well as vitamins B1, B2 and PP and mineral salts. Pasta does not contain any fat and this characteristic makes this food a source of healthy energy for the body. Other elements not present in pasta are vitamins A, C and D, this is something our ancestors knew already, and for this reason they used to eat pasta with legumes, such as beans and chickpeas, fish and aromatic herbs rich in vitamin C. Pasta is advised to anyone who wants to lose weight because provokes satiety and it is a good regulator of the bowel functions.

 Pasta is the ideal food to be consumed before doing a heavy physical activity as it is rich in carbohydrates capable of giving the necessary energy to the whole body, moreover it is a food easily digestible.


 Corkscrew  Share this article     Summary of Not Just Wine column  
  Not Just Wine Issue 6, March 2003   
PastaPasta Wine ParadeWine Parade ClassifiedClassified  Contents 
Issue 5, February 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 7, April 2003

Wine Parade


The best 15 wines according to DiWineTaste's readers. To express your best three wines send us an E-mail or fill in the form available at our WEB site.

Rank Wine, Producer
1 Semillon Sauvignon 2001, Cape Mentelle
2 Masseto 1998, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia
3 Chardonnay 2000, Planeta
4 Château Lynch-Bages Pauillac 2000
5 Capo di Stato 1998, Conte Loredan Gasparin
6 Teroldego Rotaliano Granato 1998, Foradori
7 Muffato della Sala 1999, Castello della Sala
8 Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac 2000
9 Rioja Reserva “Pagos Viejos” 1997, Bodega Artadi - Cosecheros Alavares
10 Château Laroque Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classè 1998
11 Zinfandel Barrel Select Mendocino County 1999 - Fetzer Vineyards
12 Sauvignon Blanc 2000, Cakebread
13 Trentino Bianco Villa Margon 2000, Fratelli Lunelli
14 Shiraz 2000, Plantaganet
15 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1995, Fattoria dei Barbi

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  Not Just Wine Issue 6, March 2003   
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