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PASTA

Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy’s favourite food

Happy World Pasta Day! Tuck in to few things you might not know about Italy's best-loved export.

Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy’s favourite food
Happy World Pasta Day. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Why do Italians love pasta? There are too many reasons to count.

So instead, we’ll share with you a few things you might not know about Italy’s best-loved export. 

Italians used to eat pasta with a spike

Forget the fork and spoon debate: in the Middle Ages, Italians would have been shocked to see diners using anything except a wooden spike to twirl up their noodles.

The instrument was known as a punteruolo and was gradually replaced by the fork as Italians realised that three spikes were better than one.

READ ALSO: How to decipher Italy’s mind-boggling pasta menus

The fork’s practicality for eating pasta is believed to be a factor in why Italy adopted the cutlery earlier and more enthusiastically than most other countries in Europe.

Naples is the perfect place to make pasta

Campania, the region of southern Italy around Naples, has arguably the world’s best climate for making pasta.

Its rich soil and warm weather helps durum wheat to grow year round, while the combination of cool, dry breezes from the sea and hot, wet winds from Mount Vesuvius provide the perfect conditions to dry pasta slowly – but not too slowly – in the open air.

Photo: Mark Notari/Flickr

Today the region produces Italy’s first protected pasta: pasta di Gragnano, made from local wheat and soft spring water from Mount Lattari using traditional techniques. The pasta is considered so unique that the European Union granted it “protected geographical indication” status in 2013.

Italy’s first pasta factory was in Venice

Artisanal pasta-making may have flourished in southern Italy, but the first pasta factory was in the north. In 1740 Venice authorized Paolo Adami of Genova to open a pasta factory there.

The licence stipulated that he would teach Venetian apprentices the secrets of fine pasta because, other than Neapolitans, the Genovese were considered Italy’s pasta kings.

We eat 13 million tonnes of pasta a year

The world spent $23 billion on pasta in 2016, according to market research by Euromonitor. That bought us some 13 million tonnes of the stuff.

Italy is the world’s biggest market, followed by the United States. But guess who buys the most pasta after them?

Russia. So popular is pasta becoming there that Euromonitor predicts Russia’s appetite could eventually overtake Americans’.


Photo: Danil Semyonov/AFP

There’s a science to the shapes

The multitude of shapes that pasta comes in, around 600 at the latest count, aren’t just to look pretty.

There are some pretty strict rules about which shape best suits to which dish.

READ ALSO:

Each shape has something it’s especially good at: long, thin pasta sweeps up thinner sauces; thick noodles balance out rich, meaty ones; short, hollow pastas are perfect for when you want to pick up a mouthful of pasta, a scoop of sauce and chunks of meat or veg at the same time; while the smallest ones add just the right bite to a bowl of soup.

So don’t even think about pairing spaghetti with a chunky vegetable sauce, for instance. And why would you ever – ever – use tiny ditalini in anything except a soup?

Casanova wrote odes to macaroni

Giacomo Casanova was an eater as well as a lover. In his 19th-century autobiography, he tells the story of travelling to Chiogga, near his native Venice, and encountering a “macaronic academy”: a club for poets who would compete to compose verses in praise of… macaroni.

In his account, Casanova reels off ten stanzas and is immediately made a member. He then impresses the poets further by eating so much pasta at a club picnic that they name him the “prince” of macaroni.

What rhymes with macaroni? Unfortunately, Casanova didn’t record his pasta poem.

There was once a 25-metre lasagna

The world’s largest lasagna on record is a 25 by 2.5 metre behemoth baked in Poland. It required 2,500 kilograms of pasta, 800 kilos of mince, 500 litres of tomato sauce and 400 kilos of cheese.

A supermarket in the town of Wieliczka made the record-breaking lasagna in June 2012 in honour of the Italian national football team, who stayed there throughout the Euro 2012 championship.

You can eat it sweet

… and we’re not even talking about novelty chocolate pasta. There are many established pasta desserts that won’t get you sniffed at by an Italian.

Photo: julianna/DepositPhotos.

How about fried angel hair topped with honey and pistachios? Or almond ravioli stuffed with ricotta and orange zest?

And if you do get any complaints from pasta purists, you can politely inform them that in Renaissance Italy, pasta was commonly served with sugar, cinnamon and soft cheese.

Pasta was once blamed for all of Italy’s woes

One of the strangest episodes in pasta history occurred in the early 1930s, when a collective of Italian thinkers and artists declared war on Italy’s favourite food.

Pasta is “an absurd Italian gastronomic religion”, wrote the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and eating it causes “pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism”.


No spaghetti for Marinetti. Photo: Manifesto of Futurism via Wikimedia Commons.

According to author Marco Ramperti, a fellow member of the Futurist movement, “spaghetti poisons us” and “our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we have taken in”.

The Futurists recommended eating rice instead. Needless to say, Italians didn’t listen: outraged citizens, politicians and pasta makers wrote to Marinetti to protest.

Pasta keeps you thin, saves you from heart attacks and makes you happy

Various health benefits have been attributed to pasta over the years, more or less convincingly.

Italian researchers found convincing evidence that people who eat a lot of pasta are less likely to be overweight, which they attribute to its part in the famous Mediterranean diet of fresh vegetables and olive oil.

Photo: ViewApart/DepositPhotos.

Another study showed that eating barley pasta could help to make the heart more resilient to heart attacks.

And many nutritionists claim that eating carbohydrates such as pasta increases levels of serotonin, the body’s happiness chemical.

In any case, what’s indisputable is that pasta-guzzling Italians live longer than almost anyone else. That’s good enough for us.  

DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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