Bronze Die Pasta and a little Pasta History

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I do long post and here’s another long one.  I have used Bikerboy as my boredom-meter and he said his eyes weren’t quite glazing over but certainly there was information over-load for him!  This post started because I wanted to blog about bronze die pasta which meant finding out about durum wheat and that was a good thing since I didn’t really know exactly what made durum wheat different from others. If at school all I had to learn was the subject of art and food I would’ve been the most studious of anyone attending. I’ve really enjoyed learning through this post even to the point I would go to bed very late my head spinning with new information.

This little search of mine has lead me into all sort of information I would’ve never of guessed. As I’m typing I’m still in amazement how one ingredient can lead into so much wide ranging information. Taking you across centuries encountering different cultures and historical figures. Learning about the 12th century Arab geographer Abu Abdullah Muhemmed ibn Idris (also known as Al-Idrisi) who produced the first comprehensive book mapping the world commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily, taking him 15 yrs to complete. I have been introduced to the Latin word laganum used by Etruscans refering to thin strips of stiff dough (unleaven) resembling the lasagna but only it was baked not boiled. I learnt about Emmer being the great-granddad of all our modern wheat and how it almost disappeared left to grow wild but now evolved into the very trendy Farro.  Most interestingly I learnt fresh and dried pasta have had two different paths through the centuries in Italy.  And last but not the least I have finally found out what proteins do in wheat flour and I think I have solved my own conundrum; what makes pasta flour act different from bread flour.

Why Would You Buy Fresh Pasta?
OK I have nothing against fresh pasta, love it, when made right. Yesterday I checked out the refrigeration section in the supermarkets looking for the fresh pasta because of this post and was astonished at the amount of varieties there exist, all kinds of fresh pasta even fresh spaghetti…why? Why would you buy fresh pasta but with a long fridge shelf life? I’m not sure who along the way had the idea in the UK that the word ‘fresh’ always means better regardless. I used to buy fresh pumpkin ravioli when working near Soho in Lina’s Store because it was made and sold within a day or so of making it and that’s how fresh pasta should be eaten.

I can see the satisfaction of producing your own pasta and then wanting to store it. In which case long strand types are best dried and left at room temperature in nest shapes or can be frozen because refrigeration makes the strands sticky. Stuffed pasta refrigerated between 2-3 days. When I picked up the bag of fresh spaghetti in the supermarket and saw a life date of over two weeks, I can not be convinced that pack will give me a better cooked product than a good dried spaghetti. And this is what I would like to convince you of; buying a good dried pasta.

Fresh Pasta and Dried Pasta – Which Is Best?
Easy to assume from the sheer amount of fresh pasta available to buy that somehow fresh pasta and dried pasta are interchangeable and the Italians view them the same and making the assumption fresh is best.  And who can blame us here? Watching tv chefs promoting fresh pasta to be made at home, how easy to make and how fantastic it tastes and not just from British chefs either,  Italian tv chefs too harping on about the fantastic quality of fresh pasta. No doubt about it good fresh pasta is superb.

Reading through my Italian cookery books the point made by all of the writers with regards to Fresh Pasta v. Dried Pasta is the same; they are two completely separate ingredients, used in different ways for different sauces and evolving through culinary history differently. I can only think of comparing the same as fresh grapes to raisins, you wouldn’t subsitute one for the other. Yes…there is an overlap in pasta that you can cook lasagne sheets or taglitelle and such like from dried and fresh pasta but traditionally fresh and dried have different jobs. Some cookery writers admit to being entrenched in only accepting a particular sauce with a particular type of pasta,  but  of course things evolve.

In my disappointing Carluccio’s pasta book lacking good information about dried pasta states that fresh pasta was cooked by his mother “….as often as the bringing up of six children would allow” and this is the point of good fresh pasta made with eggs* it’s not something the home cook would just knock up on a daily basis. What I read through this generation of Italian cookery writers about their experiences in Italy is fresh pasta was generally regarded as special in some way, not a daily occurrence. With having to use eggs, a commodity prized by the poor, fresh pasta would be used for special dishes, special occasions or where it is in a league of its own; fresh stuffed pasta. I know from my own upbringing when money is short and you have a few laying hens, having to save eggs for the likes of a cake turns the cake into an event not like making a cake today at one’s whim. Eggs become an important protein to feed your kids, to this day a fried egg symbolizes childhood for me.

The message I received very clearly from passionate cookery writers is; it’s far better to eat a plate of good dried pasta than a plate of badly made fresh pasta.  Amen to that.

*there exists fresh pasta in the South of Italy made without eggs but not considered to have the delicacy of fresh egg pasta

Brief History of Pasta in Italy – Dried and Fresh
To make clear in case there is any doubt the answer is no,  Marco Polo did not introduce the Italians to pasta by his travels to the Orient and their noodle making. This false fact existing on some sites even on a Italian artisan pasta manufacturer’s website. Italy was producing pasta before the 13th century.

Dried pasta is made from the all important durum wheat that was traditionally grown and harvested in the south of Italy.   In fact Sicily is attributed to be making dried pasta and importing it in the 12th century recorded by the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi….in a town near Palermo they were producing in large quantities spaghetti, then known as “itrijah”, a Persian word. Sicily being strategically positioned in the Mediterranean had it’s fair share of invaders but it was the invasion of the Saracens in the 9th century bringing with them their agricultural knowhow and their irrigation methods made the growing of the hard durum wheat possible. Dried pasta became more than just food for those living in the surrounding areas it became important nourishment for travelers, sea merchants and those taking up arms.

Throughout the following centuries the south of Italy established itself as the grower and producer of dried pasta with its climate of dry sea breeze being perfectly suited to drying pasta not too quickly to damage it but not taking too long either allowing mould to develop.

Fresh Pasta
In one of my books Lorenza’s Pasta by Lorenza De’Medici which I would recommend highly as a good pasta book but equally good is the detailed research she has on the history of pasta, both the dried and fresh.  She states how the two evolved quite separately but alongside each other; dried from the occupation of Sicily by the Saracens and the fresh from the evolving of baking sheets of lasagna (laganum) from the Etruscans and then Romans.  In Roman times the poet Horace refers to laganum being eaten with leeks and chickpeas and there’s reference in the Roman cookery book by Apicius of laganum used to encase meat.  As far as historians are aware during this period these sheets were baked not boiled.

For lasagna sheets as we know them now Loranza jumps to the 13th century with a friar  called Salimbene de Adam from Parma and a 14th century Bolognese writer Giovanni Boccaccio referring to pasta boiled in fowl broth and served with cheese, lots of cheese.

Lorenza points out during this time pasta was not a food of the poor, she mentions the 15th century celebrity chef Maestro Martino da Como who recommends boiling the pasta in meat or chicken broth and then serving it with a “sprinkling of  sweet spices and sugar”.   Not only the ingredients used with it were luxuries but documentation show pasta costing 3 times that of bread, there were taxes imposed.

All of this in subsequent centuries obviously changed with the mass manufacturing of pasta giving rise to many street vendors selling pasta to the masses who use to stop and eat spaghetti on the spot with their hands.  There exists old pictures depicting these scenes.

Traditional Bronze Dies v. Modern Nylon Dies
If you haven’t noticed bronze die pasta the simplest way to explain the difference is looking at the surface of it. If you look up close it has a rough speckled pale colour different from the cheaper more common pasta which has a brighter yellow shiny surface. This very rough texture made from the traditional bronze die  allows the maximum amount of sauce cling on to the pasta making it taste all the better for it. The cheaper brighter yellow smooth shiny variety produced by using nylon dies has a better surface to repel the sauce.

Traditionally all pasta was made with bronze dies (stamps) where the dough is pressed through to make various shapes. As the dough is pressed through the roughness of the holes, the ‘all bronze dies’ create a porous surface that will help cook the pasta evenly giving you a good ‘al dente’ as well as absorbing more sauce. Over time manufacturers wanting to speed up the whole process for maximum profitability replaced the bronze dies with ones lined with Teflon. Here’s a photo of one, you’ll notice in the middle of the plate the white lining of plastic.

I can not find a photo on the net of a commercial ‘all bronze die’ but found someone producing bronze die pasta at home with his domestic machine using a little all bronze die here. What a fantastic photo he has of the pasta coming out and achieving that very rough texture I’ve been explaining.

Quality of the Durum Wheat
In Italy a law was passed that all Italian pasta produced has to be made using durum wheat.  It’s a hard wheat high in proteins but relatively low in starches, it absorb less water than other wheat high in protein.  Absorbing less water makes it better when drying it out.  What you want from the pasta flour is strength but not stretchiness as bread flours have, you don’t want the dough to be springing back when you’re working it, it needs to stay put as you roll it out thinly to then shape it.  It has to last the heavy machinery without becoming brittle.  Outside Italy pasta can and is made from softer flours, some blending with durum wheat making the production cheaper.

Reading artisan pasta makers sites they mention the quality of the durum wheat they use.  Durum wheat is grown around the world and from my reading not only the quality of it relies on good stock but the grinding process will have an effect too as the highest concentration of its protein is in the heart of the kernel.  I’ve also read the size of the flour grain when durum wheat is ground (this is referred to as semolina) can make a difference to the quality of the dough.  I read  in one of Heston Blumenthal’s books when he visits a small artisan pasta manufacturer confirming the importance of the size of the semolina.

The Drying Process
In the artisan blurb they mention the importance of the quality of water they use, I haven’t come across any evidence to confirm the difference this makes, I think it’s like a cog on a wheel effect. However, the drying process appears to be something of equal importance to the quality of the wheat and the production of texture.   Traditionally centuries back the pasta was dried by the open mountain and sea air which is why the south of Italy was perfectly placed, but as time and production moved on so did the speed to which the drying process took place, from a possible 2-3 days in the olden days to an hour with heat machines today.

From what I’ve read even artisan makers now use some sort of indoor heating system but the timing of the drying process is very important as they want to dry the pasta at a rate which will give it a uniformity, not too quickly to damage the outside layer but not too slowly for bacteria or mould to set in, this takes time obviously costing more.

Durum Wheat, Bread Flour, Gluten, Protein, Starch and Water
I’ve been struggling throughout to understand the above in the context of pasta flour; durum wheat. Over the days I’ve been putting together the information I haven’t been able to figure out why it is durum wheat and bread flours are both high in protein and low in starch but can behave so different.  Bread flour is pliable and responsive enabling shaping it but at the same time it’s bouncy springing back for a bread shape to form and rise, pasta flour is just a tough dormant dough, no bounce no elasticity, regardless of yeast they react differently.

As a home baker you read and hear others talk of the importance of gluten in flour to make bread and the stronger the flour the better. Gluten is protein and wheat flours contain different amounts. You read a high protein flour is good for making bread but I never understood why until doing this.

At the start of my research I thought pasta flour (durum wheat)  acted  different from bread flour because it contained more protein than bread flour. This theory of mine went out of the window. I read pasta flour can averages at 12% protein but the best pasta flour contains as high as 17% protein. When I read in one of my books bread flour in the UK contains 12-14% protein and Canadian bread flour up to 18% protein.   There I was stuck again, durum wheat and bread flours are both high protein and low starch.  So what gives?

Genetic Differences
There was nothing in McGee’s entry under pasta or durum wheat that shed some light. Bread and pasta books don’t compare both flours and my thinking was maybe it’s in the difference of the genetic make-up between the two. In the beginning of searching for information on what durum wheat was? I was lead into all sorts of information through links as you do……though I love learning something new… I sometimes get lost….it lead me to a table of chromosomes of wheat and what a tetraploid was? After some help from a friend who read the table and explained, “…different kinds of wheat have genetic differences, so durum has four times as many chromosomes as the ancestor it shares with bread wheat, which has six times as many.  These variations occurred naturally several thousand years ago”. I put the differences to that.

The Absorbency of Water, Gliadins and Glutenins
I was in the middle of finishing the last details of the post having slept on a brain full of gluten, starch and protein information that was quite frankly confusing me more than helping…grant you it doesn’t take a lot to achieve that…I went back to McGee’s book and read his entry on gluten, “Gluten is a complex mixture of certain wheat proteins that can’t dissolve in water, but do form associations with water molecules and with each other. When the proteins are dry, they’re immobile and inert. When wetted with water, they can change their shape, move relative to each other, and form and break bonds with each other”. (reason I’ve highlighted these sentences will become clear at end of this section)

Through reading this entry I finally understood what proteins did in bread.   McGee goes into detailed explanation of gluten proteins forming long chain that stick to each other in chain-like molecules which are built up from smaller molecules called amino acid.  These gluten proteins are mainly gliadins and glutenins which are about a thousand amino acids long. The gliadin and glutenin chains play different roles; gliadin chains, “…fold onto themselves in a compact mass, and bond only weakly with each other and with the glutenin proteins. Glutenins, however, bond with each other in several ways to form an extensive, tightly knit network”.

I have this picture in my head now of little long chains connected together, and some of these chains are weak, and because they are weak when you work the dough some of the chains brake allowing the dough to be manipulated but (this was the interesting point for me) the chains that don’t brake spring back, this is why you have the dough being responsive.  Now I know proteins in wheat contain gliadins and glutenins, one producing a weak chain and the other a tighter chain, which helps when making dough. According to McGee the whole point of this protein in bread flour is so it becomes elastic making possible to change the shape as you work with it but yet resists the pressure and moves back to its original shape when pressure is removed. Exactly what you don’t want with pasta dough!

I was reading the very last bit in McGee’s entry under “Controlling Gluten Strength” and at this point finally the light bulb appeared above my head! McGee says, “The water content of the dough, which determines how concentrated the gluten proteins are, and how extensively they can bond to each other. Little water gives an incompletely developed gluten I finally went…yes!…this is it!…it makes sense now.

Why Pasta Flour and Bread Flour are Different – according to me!
I remembered reading about absorbency of durum wheat requiring a small amount of water to make a dough, as much as 30% less than bread flours.   This is good for when drying pasta as I’ve already said because the drying process is important in pasta making but maybe also it has another benefit too.  Maybe this is it, my answer to why pasta flour and bread flour both high in protein can react so differently. Pasta flour requires so little water in comparison that most of its protein is still undeveloped, remaining immobile and inert, not creating the complex long chain which will give the dough the elasticity, bounciness you expect from a bread flour.

Now I don’t really know if this is absolute I’m not a scientist just a simple foodie but I’ve concluded this for myself from what McGee says on gluten and other reading on pasta dough…it ties together nicely. It could be a combination of genetic differences between the durum and other high protein wheats together with the small amount of water keeping most of the proteins asleep.  Still for now my brain rests better at night…

Emmer, Durum Wheat, Semolina, Farro
I learnt Emmer is an ancient grain and along with barley one of the first grains to be cultivated, and that durum wheat is a cultivated wheat from emmer. The interestingly thing about emmer is that once upon a time it was renegated to growing wild or for animal feed because its yield is poor but now has made a fashionable comeback as farro both in trendy foodie establishments and in health food shops for its nutty flavour and healthy properties.

Emmer is sold as Farro in Italy but to confuse things further in Italy the name farro doesn’t just refer to emmer, it refers to hulled wheat, and that could also mean einkorn or spelt. You can buy farro grande, farro medio and farro piccolo, in wikipedia it contradicts itself to which means which…still none the wiser on that.

Artisan Pasta and the Mass Produced Bronze Die Pasta
What I have notice in the last couple of years is the introduction of bronze die pasta by the big name companies that are familiar to us. The artisan pasta maker falls into category of names that are less well known, names I don’t tend to recognise the sort you’ll find in a posh store. I do my family shop in the supermarket and therefore I’ll buy one of the big name bronze die pastas. I don’t know the quality of the grain or how the drying time compares to the small artisan but I can’t see I’m getting like for like here.

Some of the mass produced bronze die pastas they state using bronze dies but nothing about the length of time to dry.   However I’ve also noted in a supermarket “finest”  range of pasta (tescos) stating made from ‘quality durum wheat, using bronze die, slow drying’ on the package, I bought a packet of penne from this range to try it for the post and was impressed with the quality of pasta, these packs are not that much more than the nylon die pastas and I’m happy with that for my family meals.

I see from quite a few of the artisan pastas they contain egg, which isn’t suitable for my family because of middle daughter.  The egg gives the pasta a great colour and richness but it’s not to everyone’s taste.  I noted in Heston Blumenthal’s book when he was choosing the pasta for his spaghetti bolognese he chose a egg rich spaghetti which one of his chefs experimenting with him thought it reminded him of egg noodles.

How to Tell Good Quality Pasta
I haven’t experimented with artisan pasta and the large commercial bronze dies side by side but I know from reading the Italian books a sign of good quality pasta is holding it’s shape and texture through cooking and not clouding the water. Cloudy water is something I never paid attention to before now but it is a sign the pasta contains too much starch and is being released into the boiling water, not containing high enough protein. Another sign of quality pasta is when tasting without sauce it should have flavour and an aroma of its own.

For the Occasion meal where I’m feeling a decent bottle of wine is also in order I’ll go out of my way to purchase that packaged pasta that comes all boxed up with no English translation…makes it feel more Italian ;)

To explain the photos:

Below you have the normal nylon die spaghetti on the left, and on the right the bronze die spaghetti.

Some mass produced brands only state the pasta being bronze die but no reference to drying times or quality of the durum wheat.  Other big brands do specify all and are still reasonably priced.

This penne below is from the same range in the photo above and you can clearly see the texture of the pasta.

Below you have the penne I mention above, next to it on the left is also another brand of penne bronze die and the penne on the right is the normal nylon die.

The two spaghetti packs below are both nylon one normal big brand and the other an organic range.