Pasta in Italian culture, a little story

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Pasta in Italian culture

Pasta, a  bliss in Italian cuisine!
A staple food dating back to the early 1150s in Sicily. 

What is Italian Pasta?

The term pasta comes from pastasciutta – originally known as “pastam” from Latin. Not only does it refer to  the uncooked version, but also to a vast range of pasta dishes, and an essential part of the Mediterranean Diet.

Basically a noodle made from a durum wheat dough, combined together with water or eggs and differently shaped into various  sizes, then cooked by boiling, baking, or in broth (a soup type dish).

It is generally divided into two main categories. Dried pasta (pasta secca) and Fresh (pasta fresca). A dish which unites Italy, an inevitabile ritual and above all, an everyday lifestyle.

Most dried pasta is produced by an extrusion process, whereas fresh pasta was traditionally hand-made using a rolling-pin; or even a pasta machine (for those who have never knacked this masterly culinary skill – or just due to lack of time).
But today many varieties of pasta is commercially produced by large scale machines, consequently making products widely available in supermarkets. 

There are literally hundreds of dry and fresh pasta shapes, referred to by many names, depending on Region, town, and local dialect.

Pasta is a very simple dish to prepare, both versatile and filling, as long as it is cooked in boiling salted water “al dente”. Remember, always follow cooking instructions carefully.

Dry pasta usually expands after cooking, and takes longer to prepare, in comparison to fresh pasta that doesn’t expand and cooks quicker, and tastier, too. Always add a drop of  olive oil to the salted cooking water with fresh pasta which is helpful, avoiding it sticking and tangling in the saucepan.

Italian Pasta forever!

Fresh pasta is easy to make. Ingredients for the dough include wheat flour (preferably from Italy), eggs, and a pinch of salt. The flour is mounded onto a flat surface, a well is formed in the pile of flour created. Eggs are then added into the well, and  mixed together by the use of a fork.  It is then kneaded into a dough which is then rolled and stretched out to a transparent thinness,  then ready for use. Simple!

In Italy it is generally served as a first course – owing to  portion size and simplicity, a complete meal in itself. Outstanding in light lunches, pasta salads or even larger portions sizes for dinner, served hot or cold.

Long stranded pastas go well with simple sauces. Short pastas (better if hollow) mingle well with meat or chunkier and thicker sauces to cling to, bite ability assured every time. Filled pastas – with ham and mozzarella cheese, spinach and ricotta cheese, mushrooms and ham and topped with bechamel sauce. Minute pastas used in soups,- choices are endless.

Also available in a variety of colours.

  • Green: with boiled spinach basil or parsley – blended;
  • Red: boiled beetroot – tomato purèe – blended;
  • Orange: with carrots - baked pumpkin – blended;
  • Yellow: saffron or curry;
  • Brown: unsweetened cocoa powder – mushrooms – chestnuts - blended;
  • Black: cuttle-fish ink.

In addition, also used as a dessert. Chiacchiere/Angel Wings a customary sweet crispy dough pastry – either flat or shaped into twisted ribbons – deep fried and sprinkled with caster or icing sugar, eaten at Carnival time – absolutely delicious.

The origins of pasta

The origin of pasta dates back to ancient times. Even in the 1st Century AD there were even written reports of Horace citing fine sheets of fried dough “lagana”- today’s lasagne an everyday consumption.

Furthermore, it has been noted that Arabs adapted noodles for long journeys during the 5th Century. Even in the beginning dry pasta was hand-made for the affordable elite in Italy, owing to the labour costs involved in strenuously kneading the dough for a long time.

There is a legend which states that Marco Polo imported pasta from China in the attempt to popularize pasta in the U.S.A. Traces of pasta have been found in Greece and other countries, too.

During the 14th and 15th Centuries, dried pasta became popular for storage on ships, by pioneers when exploring the New World. Then about a century later pasta had spread around the globe during discovery voyages.

Today, the idea of using tomato sauce enhanced the flavor and revolutionized the consumption of pasta, as it was eaten plain, and tasteless. When extra sauce is left after having eaten pasta it is usually mopped up with a piece of bread – what the Italians call “ fare la scarpetta”. Portions have become smaller and more sophisticated. Lower prices, cooking simplicity, and immediate transportation have all contributed in making this staple food become a world-wide success.

Appraisals report  that Italians eat over twenty-seven kilos of pasta a head on an annual basis, by far beating anyone else. Territorial consumption exceeds the wheat productions, leading to the importation from abroad. Italy is the world’s largest exporter of pasta. Export markets include the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France Japan and others.

Needless to say that pasta originated in Italy, then became a world-wide popularity owing to Italian immigration into the U.S., Canada  and South Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Other grains can be used to make pasta - buckwheat, barley, rye, maize chickpea, rice and chestnut, too. Gluten free wholewheat also exist for people affected by gluten-free related disorders, wheat allergy sufferers- coelic disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

As regards to its nutritional value it is predominantly a starch- due to the flour. But in wholewheat, it contains minerals, such as magnesium, iron, manganese, calcium, zinc, potassium and vitamin B.

Pasta in the Italian films

A number of films have been set around the pasta world, for example watch these classics:

  • Roma – una città aperta” by Roberto Rossellini,
  • Rocco ed i suoi fratelli” by Luchini Visconti;
  • the comedy “Miseria e Nobiltà", starring the late Totò, by Eduardo Scarpetta.
  • “I soliti Ignoti” with the late Totò and Vittorio Gassman.
  • “Un Americano a Roma” with the late Alberto Sordi, un unforgettable scene where he is about to tuck into of a delightful plate of spaghetti. 

Last but not least even the BBC broadcasted a memorable April Fool’s hoax on the 1st April 1957, of a spaghetti harvest in Ticino (video still viewable on you tube) showing spaghetti growing on trees, harvested then cooked. Unbelievable- yet so convincing, effective and amusing!

Finally, it is a form of Pasta Art, by the use of dry noodles, individually glued onto surfaces, jewellery boxes, bottles etc to produce a mosaic, even Jewellery can be made from it, too.

“VIVA LA PASTA”!

By Adriana Tenan

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