TEXT BY PHILIP SINSHEIMER
PHOTOS BY CESARE ZUCCA After the discovery of Abruzzi thanks to the guidance of local pasta maker extraordinaire Rustichella, I collected my thoughts about their business model relying largely on export. Why would this company deeply rooted in this region of Italy have both the desire and the possibility to reach the four corners of the world? Wasn’t there a form of contradiction here between local and global?This happened to be around Oct 25th which is celebrated as pasta day around the world which put things in context, as pasta appears as an icon of Italiy and, at the same time, an international product, almost universal. Looking at things from a historical perspective, this is not that shocking or contradictory. Pasta is, by definition, a product made to travel. By “pasta”, I am referring to dry pasta made of durum wheat semolina, not fresh pasta made from tender wheat flour with the adjunction of eggs most of the time. Italy is the birthplace of pasta as a commercial commodity capable of withstanding long periods of time, being a dry product that can last for years. The first mention of commercial dry pasta making dates to the 12th century (way before the birth of Marco Polo you may note!) with a text from an Arab geographer referring to a large production of it in the vicinity of today’s Palermo in Sicily. It is clearly stated that the goods produced were sent by ships to various Christian countries.Genova was soon to become an important area of dry pasta production as well. Why? Because of the importance of its port and shipping capacities. Think about it: at a time with no refrigeration and slow means of transportation, how far could food really travel? Pasta, well protected from humidity, rapidly grew in popularity and started traveling the world, just like salt cod did! Fast forward: today, how can a medium-size company like Rustichella manage to have their products fly over continents to reach the kitchens of chefs and gourmet home cooks as far away as Japan and Brazil? How can they compete with industrial giants such as Barilla which benefit from massive marketing, advertising and financial power? The answer is both material and immaterial qualities, just like soul and body. How can that be in the case of pasta which is basically made of 2 ingredients, durum wheat and water, the latter being at the end eliminated for the most part by the way. How can such a basic and simple food product have a soul and how can it vary so much in quality? Food products are not only a collection of molecules. They carry with them emotion and identity. Think of Proust and his lengthy internal voyage through the remembrance of his past, just by biting into this piece of madeleine cake ducked in a cup of tea. Rustichella does everything to delivery emotions. Opening a package of their product is an invitation to a journey to Abruzzi without having to take a plane. Of course, having been there is a prerequisite to experience this motionless journey. People should really come and taste all that Abruzzi has to offer in order to tie emotional knots in their memory and feel something when they open a package of pasta coming from there. Who knows where Barilla pasta is produced? And more importantly, who cares? The giant company which headquarters are in Parma translate nothing of the soul of this beautiful city of Emilia Romagna.Besides this immaterial quality that Rustichella instils at the heart of its products, there is a good deal of very concrete and technological elements that make them stand out as a pasta like no other. In short, the product is not a mere invitation to dream of Abruzzi. If it carries a soul, it’s because its body is of the best quality to begin with. You wouldn’t have people dream and get off their feet with a food product that wouldn’t be worth their attention in the first place. Now, what are the material qualities that make a pasta exceptional and dream-worthy? First, the quality of the ingredients. Well, we do not have to go very far with that: durum wheat and water, that’s it. I had been told that the quality of the water was important, but Gianluigi Peduzzi – co-owner of Rustichella with his sister Stefania – seemed to dismiss that element. Just pure water. The ingredient that really counts is the durum wheat. The siblings being children of famous millers in the region of Vestina knew one thing or two about the ingredient! A great wheat will lend not only great flavor, but great texture. Whether imported or locally sourced, only the best quality is used. An organic line of pasta has also been created recently RUSTICHELLA
But the best durum wheat in the world won’t automatically make a great pasta. It would be too easy! Technique is essential. An exceptional visit of the factory was the occasion to have a clue of all the parts involved in the process. One of the key elements is the use of bronze dyes, which are pierced wheels of metal, if your will, through which the pasta dough is pushed through leading to various shapes of pasta. Why is this better than the Teflon coated molds used in basic quality pasta? Well, the bronze can never be totally smooth and thus the pasta will have a superficial rugosity which will help the sauce cling to the pasta. With plastic coating the extrusion is way faster, but the result is a pasta texturally bland. This represents a big cost for the company: not only does the production is slower, but the dyes need to be replaced more frequently.The second most important technical element is the drying process. Ordinary pasta is produced in a continuous fully automated way. As soon as the pasta is extruded and cut, it is dried rapidly with the help of heat. Well dried, I should perhaps say baked. Notice that deep yellow color of basic pasta: it’s the sign of a caramelization and pasta shouldn’t be resemble candy making! Here, the pasta is slowly dried in chambers. It is during that drying time that the flavor of the pasta develops. Artistry is at stake here: the pasta maker will have to consider the humidity in the air to see first how much water to add to the semolina in order to obtain the perfect consistency and then, one has to judge when has to make sure the drying process is done at the right temperature and for the right time. Technique and artistry work hand in hand. As Gianluigi shared all his insights in terms of the technology, his sister Stefania gave us to see how far her artistic involvement went. She not only designed various packaging but created pieces and oversaw the art direction of a temporary exposition dedicated to Rustichella from its origins to its latest creations.One of those creations is a revolutionary spaghetti name ? that cooks in 90 seconds without sacrificing the quality of the pasta. No precooking here, like those sheets of lasagna that do not need to be precooked in boiling water. It is a technological feat coming from the shape of the pasta itself. Here again, a combination of imagination and technology, tradition and modernity.All this explains why chefs at the other end of the world decide to put the price in this high-end product. They have a story to tell, not noodles to sell. They also have a well-made product which won’t let them down in their kitchen. Because the quality of the ingredients and of the process, they know the pasta won’t get limp on them and will remain al dente. They can even pre-cook the pasta halfway and finish the cooking process in the sauce or with a short plunge in boiling water.
The pasta has the strength of a tank and the grace of a Ferrari!INFO
TEXT BY PHILIP SINSHEIMER