Pasta is the staple not just of the Italian diet, but the culture itself. Conversations revolve around it, familial relationships are formed around its production and consumption, special occasions are celebrated with it, arguments can start over it, and whole festivals are held in its honour!
And pasta also plays a major factor in the history of the world ? its development offered a staple, non-perishable food item that permitted sea travel to distant lands resulting in the finding of America for one.
There are stories claiming that the Italian concept of pasta had its origins in Marco Polo’s visit to China from around 1270. Some argue that pasta was originally an Arabic invention, since Trabia in Sicily (near Palermo) has a dish similar to macaroni call ‘Tria’ ? a kind of vermicelli said to derive from the Arabic ‘itriyah’.
However, a century before Christ, Cicero and Horace mention ‘làgana’ ?flour and water made into dough, cut into ribbons? a clear ancestor of today’s ‘lasagna’ (with the word originally deriving from the Latin ‘laganum’, a boiled, yeast-free, flour-based cake).
The next historical reference to pasta however was not to come until around 1100 years later.
Eventually, pasta was to be found on the plates of everyone, although initially it was the poor who consumed the most pasta, finding it to be economic, simple, filling and nutritious (and, thanks to the ingenious ways they learned to prepare it, also delicious!).
Pasta was also one of the world’s first ‘fast foods’ ? large pots of boiling salted water would be used to cook macaroni on the streets, it would then be sprinkled with cheese, add a dash of pepper and there you have it ? the world’s first mac-and-cheese to go!
Just how to make pasta is quite an art. Aside actually rolling up your sleeves, perfectly measuring out your amounts, gently forming a mound of flour into which you add your wet ingredients, before using two fingers to stir and gradually enticing all ingredients to combine into a dough (the word for which is actually also ‘pasta’ in Italian). It needs to be well kneaded, then rolled out and formed into the shapes required.
Tortellini and other stuffed pastas are oft-timed even precisely measured down to the millimetre!
And now we share some tips to cooking pasta perfectly.
When it comes to actually cooking the pasta, the water must boil, then you add in a large fistful of salt (preferably rock salt), which will raise the boiling temperature even more. 10-12 grams of salt should be added per litre of water. There should also be abundant water compared to the quantity of pasta. We’re talking 1 litre per 100 grams of pasta.
Once the water is boiling and the salt has been added, in goes the pasta, which is to be cooked with a careful eye on the clock to ensure the pasta is not over-cooked.
The cooking time will depend on the shape, size and thickness of the pasta shapes.
Some people test the pasta is cooked by biting into a piece pinched from the pot, others insist that nothing confirms its readiness like how it sticks to wall and thus fling a strand onto the (tiled!) wall ? really!
Perfectly cooked pasta is known as ‘al dente’ ? referring to how it is ‘to the teeth’, meaning the centre should still be a little hard and certainly not be squishy.
You should never par-cook your pasta. Cook it just before serving. If you want to have a pasta dish pre-prepared, opt for something that can be baked instead (such as lasagne).
Ensure you mix the pasta with a spoon several times as it is cooking, which will avoid the pasta clumping together or sticking to the bottom of the pot.
When you drain the pasta, stuffed pastas like ravioli or not-quite-pasta potato gnocchi should not be poured into a colander to drain the water, but carefully scooped out of the pot with a slotted spoon. If you pour them water and all into a strainer, they will break, their delicious stuffing falling out. To stop strand pasta like spaghetti from clumping together, you can also remove the strands a few at a time with a special spaghetti claw-like grabber.
Resist the urge to snap long strand pasta to fit it into the pot. Just wait a little moment until the strands bend, then gently push them down into the water.
Never rinse the pasta after it has cooked, and particularly not with cold water which would make the pasta turn cold.
Finally, top pasta chefs will put the cooked pasta back into the pot, over a low flame, and stir in the sauce for just a minute to let the flavours perfectly combine. The sauce should be perfectly paired to match the kind of pasta you have.
For instance, finer sauces are good on spiralled or penne-shapped pastas that will grip the sauce. Ribbon-like pastas are great with meat sauces, cupped shaped pastas will hold chunkier-style sauces and the like.
You can learn to cook typical Italian dishes in a fun, hands-on cooking class in Florence where you will learn how to make a complete Italian meal, before indulging in a meal of the dishes made in the class.
Experience a typical Tuscan meal in situ, amongst the rolling Tuscan hills as part of our Best of Tuscany small-group day tour to explore three Tuscan hilltop towns and have a typical lunch and wine tasting at a Tuscan villa.
You can also explore Tuscany’s wine country with us on our Tuscany walking tour including lunch, our Taste of Tuscany wine tour, Tuscany Bike Tour, and other Tuscan activitities to tour through Tuscany’s countryside.
Artviva is a proud supporter and member of Slow Food, and specialises in small-group, quality (and fun) tours in Florence/Tuscany, Rome, Cinque Terre, Venice and beyond. Visit www.italy.artviva.com for more information, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.