Is it really worth paying a little more for artisanal pasta?
It’s sometimes difficult to put your finger on exactly why one thing is better than another. Take pasta for instance; why should one pack of spaghetti, say, with it’s smart even strands and nice rustic-looking packaging, taste so inferior to another spaghetti which costs more despite (on the face of it) looking so similar?
Ask any Italian what makes good pasta, (once they’ve finished telling you that no-one makes it like their nonna) and they will tell you that apart from great ingredients (100% durum semolina flour) and a great sauce, a bronze die is the most important thing.
The benefits of using a bronze die have been known for well over a hundred years. That’s not to say that everyone uses them – as with anything there are producers for whom speed, yield and cost are the Holy Grail. They know that a Teflon die is much cheaper and far easier to use, its smooth surface allowing the pasta to be extruded more quickly. A bronze die is heavy; it’s expensive, and it wears out quickly. Despite this, however, it has one huge benefit: as the pasta is extruded, the bronze die leaves it with a much rougher surface. This roughness ‘grips’ the sauce so much better, meaning that every strand or morsel of pasta holds more sauce than its slippery mass-produced counterpart. The best Italian cooks will often assert that the point of a pasta dish is the pasta itself, not the sauce. A good quality pasta that has been made with a bronze die means less sauce will go much further, allowing the pasta to shine. Trust me, you’ll tell the difference.
As is so often the case in foods of few ingredients, the quality of the raw material counts even more. Artisan pasta makers seek out harder wheat (that’s wheat with a higher protein content) which allows them to dry it more slowly, thus locking in the starch. Mass produced pasta can use high temperature driers, allowing them to use cheaper flour, but the downside is that more of the starch leaches out during cooking instead of remaining in the pasta where it gives the perfect al dente bite. If you’ve ever followed a good Italian recipe which recommends cooking the pasta al dente, you may have found the texture unpleasantly hard – a sure sign of inferior pasta which will never achieve quite the same texture as an artisan product.
As a traditional ham curer, I’m only too aware of the importance of time in getting the product just right. The same applies to pasta: blast the dough with enough hot air and it will dry really quickly, but the flavour will be far inferior. Artisan producers know that as they allow the pasta to dry naturally and slowly – often over several days – the outside will dry first forming a slight crust, then the inside will gradually dry out even more slowly. As this happens, one of the miracles of nature occurs: we all know that many foods are fermented – yoghurt, salami, sauerkraut all get their flavour from fermentation – but not everyone would guess that fermentation has a role in making the best pasta, giving a fullness of flavour that just won’t be found at the cheaper end of the scale; think sourdough bread versus supermarket sliced white, and you’ll understand the benefit.
Just how al dente you cook your pasta is a matter of taste, and there are variations throughout Italy. I would suggest however that having bought some quality, artisanal pasta you try cooking it for slightly less time than you normally do. Use plenty of well-salted water of course, and whether you make your own sauce or ‘cheat’ and buy one of the delicious quality sauces from producers such as Tenuta Marmorelle, Lazzari or Mussoni, I’m confident that you will appreciate the difference.