Celebrating world pasta day with authentic afficionado, Valentina Harris
TV Chef and award-winning cookery book writer, Valentina Harris, pays homage to pasta, an incredible Italian invention that is loved all over the world.
Valentina Harris has an Italian pedigree she can trace back to 1369, and a love for Italian food that stems from a gourmet heritage spanning generations. She’s been writing award-winning cookery books since she published her first tome in 1983, Perfect Pasta, and has recently brought her popular range of authentic Italian cookery classes to Exeter Cookery School. Who, then, is better qualified to talk all things pasta on World Pasta Day?
We caught up with Valentina on a food tour of Somerset to discover more about Italy’s staple food:
“I think you could get away with taking almost anything away from your average Italian, apart from the sheer joy of eating pasta. Even recent challenges surrounding wheat intolerance and an increase in coeliac diseaseⴕ has been overcome very neatly. It’s no longer a problem, thanks to the successful and widespread manufacture of pasta made with ground beans, chickpea flour, rice, maize flour, and even ground nettles. Nothing can stand between Italians and pasta!
I am, of course, so far, referring to pasta made simply with durum wheat (hard wheat) flour and water: pasta di semola di grano duro. It’s very high in gluten and impossible to make by hand, and so has always been (and will always be) factory made: this is dried pasta, and outside of Italy is often wrongly thought of as ‘inferior’ to so-called ‘fresh pasta’.
Instead, the two main types of pasta are better identified by their ingredients. One is made with flour and water; the other with soft flour (with a lower gluten content and therefore more manageable) and egg. This introduces a second protein in the form of the albumen (egg white), along with the fat in the egg yolk and, as a result, it can much more easily be made into a malleable dough.
Even so, everybody will make dough that is a bit different every time because, like bread dough, the pasta dough will take on something from you and how you are feeling each time. In other words, somebody who has just discovered love for the first time will make quite different pasta to somebody who has just received a parking ticket!
To really understand about making egg pasta (which, incidentally, can be either soft and fresh OR dried) you need to come on a pasta-making course to really get to grips with it. Key factors include texture and how to not over-knead it (thus overstretching the gluten so it gets to the point when you can’t roll it out) and how finely it needs to be rolled out for the different shapes.
However, That’s just the beginning. It’s impossible to accurately explain in writing, though I have often tried! My first book, the award-winning Perfect Pasta published in 1983 and translated into 16 languages, launched my career as a food writer, but 54 books late,r I am still certain that some techniques are learned much better when shown in a live and interactive situation where you can repeat and repeat, rather than from a book or on TV.
It’s important, though, to make really clear that dried pasta is not less good or less respected than egg or ‘fresh’ pasta. The two are different, come from different parts of the country, and have different applications when it comes to the dressing or sauces used with them. It is very important to put the right pasta with the right sauce – did you know, there are 652 different registered pasta shapes available? It is interesting to note that out of all of these, spaghetti outsells all the other shapes by a massive 40%, closely followed by penne and then fusilli. However, what else would you expect from the country that gave you the Colosseum, Venice and the Mona Lisa? Spaghetti is just a simple extruded string of nothing but flour and water, made into a global success of equal importance and artistry.
Back to the plethora of other shapes – they are by and large not random, but are chosen to hold and embrace, or be embraced by the sauce, or to float like clouds in a bowl of clear soup, or to become part of a more substantial soup, such as a minestrone.
Do not make the mistake that many non-Italians make of just assuming that any shape will do - the unwritten rules do exist and are there to be respected! Never, for example, use delicate, rich pasta with strong, aromatic flavours such as you’d find in an arrabbiata or a puttanesca. Both these sauces are best with dried durum wheat pasta, specifically either spaghetti or penne, whereas the softer, gentler, creamier flavours of the northern regions are far better suited to fresh, soft, rich pasta made with eggs and soft flour. Pesto is traditionally only served with three specific pasta shapes – Trofie, Gnocchi and Linguine. Don’t ever try to impress an Italian with Penne and Pesto... and chicken just doesn’t get served with pasta – although chicken livers do!
I could go on and on about it, but let me close by just saying that on World Pasta Day, I’d like to pay homage to this incredible Italian invention, with a history that goes right back to the Etruscans and is so loved all over the world. It’s much more than just food: it’s a testament of everything that is amazing and special about beautiful Italy. Where would we be without it?!”
Come and get to grips with the artistry of perfect pasta on one of our courses. Valentina teaches regularly at Exeter Cookery School, and on the 16th and 17th November will be showing us how to make delectable savoury and sweet edible gifts to solve all your Christmas present dilemmas. We look forward to seeing you.
ⴕ To my mind, the increase in wheat intolerance is firmly connected to the type of wheat grown these days for reasons of economy and yield: apart from the occasional exception, we have been happily eating wheat for thousands of years!