Pasta is a staple in Italian cuisine, often making up part of every Italian’s main meal for the day, particularly in southern Italy (“mezzogiorno”) and certain regions elsewhere in Italy such as Liguria (where pasta with pesto is a staple).
Good quality artisanal pasta is usually a pale-yellow color. Artificially-colored pastas tend to have a vibrant yellow hue. Pasta should be cooked “al dente” which literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. This refers to the ideal texture of cooked pasta which should have a firm bite yet not so firm that it tastes raw.
Traditionally, pasta was either homemade or made by skilled artisans who sold their handcrafted pastas in shops or delivered it to wealthy customers. Artisan pasta was commonplace in Italy’s commercial pasta capitals such as Naples and Genoa while the rest of Italy tended to rely on homemade pasta.
Traditional production method of pasta in Italy
Like most Italian food, pasta making has traditionally been an artisanal process.
Pasta begins with fresh, stone-ground, durum wheat flour (known as “durum semolina” or just “semolina”) obtained by milling locally-grown, organic durum wheat. Durum wheat is a hard wheat variety, “hard” meaning the grain is not easily broken apart. Durum wheat contains more protein, more gluten and is able to absorb more water. Soft wheat, so called because the grain breaks easily, is used to obtain white flour and is not ideally suited for pasta making. Durum wheat flour is coarser, granular and has a rich yellow color compared to soft wheat flour and this makes it ideal for pasta making. Italian pastas of the highest quality are traditionally made with 100% durum wheat flour and these tend to be more costly and are the most authentic Italian pastas. Pastas made with a mixture of semolina and soft wheat tend to be cheaper, of lower quality and, needless to say, are far from authentic.
The next step is making the pasta which is made entirely with just durum semolina and spring water. Because of the simplicity of the ingredients, the qualities of the ingredients are imperative for a quality outcome. The ingredients are combined to form a pliable, firm dough which is kneaded and then left to rest. After resting, the pasta is rolled out using a wooden rolling pin, and then cut to strips using a knife or molded into a variety of shapes.
The pasta can be eaten fresh, in which case it is sold immediately and is cooked immediately by the customer. If the pasta is not intended to be sold or consumed immediately, the pasta is dried, which preserves the pasta’s shelf life. Dried pasta is known as “pasta secche” in Italian. Traditionally, pasta is dried naturally, using just sunlight and air over very low temperatures, a process which could take weeks or more than a month. This long and slow drying process results in pasta that is well dried, yet not so dry that it ends up brittle. Large-scale, mass-produced pasta manufacturers on the other hand, dry their pasta artificially using mechanical driers, at considerably higher temperatures to reduce the drying time which results in “baked” rather than “dried” pasta. The consequence is that this “baked” pasta tends to break up easily when cooked unlike sun-and-air-dried pasta which retains a chewy al dente texture when cooked.
The pasta drying process requires skill and experience where airflow is adjusted depending on the wind, humidity and temperature conditions of the environment. The traditional pasta drying stage is divided into three main stages:
Stage 1: Incarmento
The first stage involved drying the surface of the pasta, usually by placing the fresh pasta under direct sunlight.
Stage 2: Rinvenimento
After the surface has dried due to the “incarmento” stage, the pasta is moved to an environment that is cooler and damper than its previous environment. This could be a cool cellar where it is left to rest for several hours which could be about 12 hours or so. As the pasta rests, the moisture retained within the dried surface of the pasta, seeps to the surface.
Stage 3: Essiccazione definitiva
The pasta is then transported to an environment that is cool yet not as damp as it was during the second stage. Here it is left to rest, carefully watched by the artisan pasta maker, until the pasta reaches the desired state of dryness. How long this takes depends on the ambient temperature and humidity. During summer months, it could take several days while during winter months it could take weeks, sometimes longer than a month, or sometimes the pasta cannot be dried at all.