When the countryside wakes up properly after its long winter slumber, Italians eat pasta alla primavera, the springtime classic. It’s a dish that celebrates the arrival of the first baby carrots, asparagus, broad beans and peas without breaking the bank, by combining these pricey new arrivals with pasta.
In Britain, we too appreciate the delights of pasta. Spaghetti bolognese – our variant on Bologna’s speciality, tagliatelle al ragù – is one of our favourite dishes. Pasta may not qualify as a local food, as nearly all of it is made in Italy, but it is cheap, versatile, quick and easy to cook, and has certainly become a mainstay of the national diet.
Buying pasta used to be simple, as only the standard dried sort was widely available. Nowadays, speciality food shelves are stacked with relatively expensive dried pasta that seems, in some way, to be a cut above the basic dried offering. Chiller cabinets are also full of upmarket-looking fresh pasta that costs vastly more than the dried sort. So what sort should we go for?
For most purposes, the basic dried pasta is the obvious default choice. Made from wheat flour and water, the flour is milled from durum semolina, a hard wheat, grown specifically for pasta because of its firmer texture. This type of pasta is ubiquitous but that does not make it inferior to chilled fresh pasta. It is the preferred type of pasta in southern Italy, where it is used for sauces that major on ingredients such as tomatoes, olives, anchovies, aubergines and olive oil. The trick is not to overcook it, so that it is still slightly bouncy in the mouth. Dried egg pasta is richer and better suited to more typically northern Italian sauces containing cream, ham and cheese.
Dried pasta with a higher price tag will have been made in a more traditional way. Pasta shapes may have been formed using copper discs, so creating a rougher exterior which is said to hold the sauce better, while noodles may have been slowly air-dried, rather than quickly dried in a kiln.
Fresh is best?
Apparently up-market fresh pasta, sold chilled, is not necessarily superior and is not to be confused with the fresh egg pasta that more ambitious cooks make at home. Unless you buy it in a specialist Italian food shop, chilled pasta is almost always made on a large scale, usually with pasteurised, rather than freshly shelled eggs. In order to extend its shelf-life, it is packed in a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to keep it looking fresh. This longer-life fresh pasta can be characterless and heavy, lacking the fresh egginess and springiness of pasta soon after it is made.
As pasta is made from refined wheat flour, some nutritionists argue that it disrupts blood sugar and insulin levels, which in turn encourages fat production and storage in the body. Many Italians may eat masses of pasta and remain slim, but this may be to do with how they integrate pasta into their diets. It is usually eaten in a small portion, after the antipasti (cured meats, fish, vegetables) and before the secondi (the main event, usually fish or meat) and contorni (more vegetables). Many Italians don’t make a whole meal out of pasta as we might do in Britain.
If you want to improve the nutritional profile of the pasta you eat, check out UK-produced pastas, made using spelt, hemp and wholewheat. As for refined white pasta? The motto might be: enjoy it, but don’t overdo it.