TRADITION, HEALTH, TASTE: IT'S ITALIAN
There is no secret: pasta is the most common food in the “Bel Paese” – and the most beloved one. The key ingredient of Italian cuisine from North to South, at every age, in every season. For a long time, at least outside the boot-shaped boundaries of the Italian country, pasta has been believed to be nothing more than a “guilty (carbohydrate) pleasure”, an unmentionable taboo for fad diet enthusiasts. On the contrary, pasta is pretty much a healthy food and an easy, affordable way to assume complex-carbohydrates in a varied and tasteful fashion. Many nutrition studies and researches assess the healthfulness of “spaghetti” and “maccheroni”, when accompanied with vegetables, legumes and other recommended foods often under-consumed, while an international committee of scientists and food authorities recently concluded that pasta is largely suitable to most diets. No wonder it’s also a key component of vegetarian and vegan meals!
As a matter of fact, pasta is a global and almost universal food: it has been consumed for centuries all around the world and still represents a traditional ingredient of many local diets: Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American. Yet today the elective nationality of pasta is Italian, with no doubt. But when did pasta appear in Italy and how long did it take to make pasta the Italian food “par excellence”? Indeed, Italian’s love for pasta has a very long story, with references dating to 1154 in Sicily. Back in the 1st century AD, the roman poet Horace describes something like an ancestor of the modern-day Lasagna: an everyday food called “lagana”, made of fine sheets of fried dough. Also an early 5th century cookbook describes a dish called “lagana” that consisted of layers of dough with meat stuffing. Pasta’s popularity is mentioned in the 14th century by the poet Boccaccio: in his literary masterpiece, The Decameron, he tells about a fantasy concerning a mountain of Parmesan cheese down which pasta chefs roll macaroni and ravioli to gluttons waiting below. Anyway ancient pasta was quite different from the “spaghetti al pomodoro” that we eat today: made with the flour of durum wheat, it was also mixed with ingredients that nowadays would seem inappropriate for Italians, often combining sweet, savory and spicy flavors. Dried Pasta became popular in 14th and 15th because easier to be stored. Pasta manufacturing machines were made even back in the 1600s, across the coast of Sanremo.
Typically, pasta is made from unleavened dough of a durum wheat flour mixed with water or eggs and formed into sheets or various shapes, then cooked in boiling water. Pastas may be divided into two broad categories, dried (Pasta Secca) and fresh (Pasta Fresca). Fresh Pasta is often mixed, cooked, and eaten right away, whereas the pasta secca is dried in order to be stored and to be prepared later, at any time. Pasta exists in more than 200 shapes, that can be eaten in a large variety of sauces and accompaniments. Pasta secca production is now industrial, with a procedure where the wheat is sieved and ground, then mixed with pure water. Then the dough is passed through the “trafiles” that give the desired shape. The “drying” part is the most delicate, where pasta has to be ventilated in order to reduce water: final moisture must not be superior to 12,5%. At last, Pasta is brought back to room temperature through the “raffreddatore” and ready to be packed.
Besides being good, Pasta is healthy too. Versatile and digestible, energetic but lightweight, pasta is a pillar of the Mediterranean diet, along with fruits, vegetables, bread, cereals, potatoes, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Thanks to a high fiber content, in particular the wholemeal pasta, and to the presence of a low glycemic index, pasta is a valuable ally in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and tumors. The presence of Group B vitamins contributes to the proper functioning of the nervous system, while pasta starch promotes the psycho-physical well-being of the organism as it supports the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter of the well-being feeling. And it’s not true that Pasta “makes you fat”! Several clinical trials have found that carbohydrates are not conducive to weight gain and obesity but the excess of calories. Pasta is actually an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, capable of delivering a slow release of energy. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a daily consumption of 45-64% of total calories from these nutrients and cereal consumption per meal for a 2000 calorie diet. Pasta is enriched with folic acid, a water-soluble vitamin B group that plays an essential role for women’s fertility because it helps to prevent the onset of severe fetal malformations. In average, a portion of dried pasta provides the equivalent of 100 mg of folic acid, equivalent to approximately 25% of the daily recommended dose.
- Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing “macaroni” to the United States. It seems that he fell in love with a certain dish he tasted in Naples, while serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France. In fact, he promptly ordered crates of macaroni, along with a pasta-making machine, sent back to the States.
- The most famous Italian way to eat pasta, “col pomodoro”, that is with tomato sauce, wasn’t introduced before 19th century. The first dishes involving tomato sauce is dated 1844. For a long time, Italians considered tomatoes “too exotic”.