If you wanted an old Italian mama (or nona) straight out of 'central casting' to photograph making pasta by hand, you could not get better than 80 year old Vincenza Vicenti who learned the skill at her mother's side from the age of 10. To watch her work was a joy, she simply mixed flour and water into a dough, rolled it out using a rolling stick that had been her grandmothers – that's right that stick in the picture has been rolling pasta dough since the early nineteenth century – and then dragged a small knife over little lumps of it that magically shaped themselves into orecchiette.
I was witness to this because the June issue of Waitrose Kitchen features a piece of mine about the semolina flour used in Waitrose's pasta. The flour is milled in the Altamura region of Puglia, Italy by the Mininni famiy who've done so since 1877. It's then bought by Ugo foods (who feature in my book) who ship it to the UK and use it not only in Waitrose's own brand fresh pasta but also their own Del Ugo brand. They've a long history in introducing items that now seem everyday, to the UK. They were the first the first fresh pasta manufacturer in the UK, and the first to introduce potato gnocchi to the British public for example.
After a tour of the mill we were treated to a wonderful lunch at an agriturismo, which was stunning for its simplicity and quality. Many of the mill employees, including Dominico Natale (pictured, and who's name literally translates and Sunday Christmas) seemed truly delighted with one particular dish of strips of pasta with a sauce made from pulverised beans. It had a lovely earthy, mealy taste, and apparently despite being a regional speciality, has rather fallen out of favour in modern times.
The Article in Waitrose Kitchen is reproduced here.
Fields of Gold
The golden wheat fields surrounding Altamura in the ‘heel’ of Italy are known for producing the best semolina for making pasta. The area’s distinctive geography – the region is placed on a broad limestone plateau – raises the wheat that bit nearer the sun, as well as being one of the few flat areas in a largely mountainous country. The limestone bedrock soaks up the winter rainfall like a sponge, releasing it slowly back into the soil over the hot summer months. All this earns the region the moniker “Granaio d’Italia”, the granary of Italy.
The Mininni family have been milling durum wheat in Altamura since 1877, when Pietro Mininni built a small mill in the town. Back then farmers brought in wheat to be milled for their own use. Today I’m sitting with the fifth generation Gennaro Mininni in a new modern mill on the outskirts of Altamura. The air is fragrant with the warm biscuity smell of flour, as well as the constant drone of the milling machinery. Like old water mills and windmills, the Mininni’s also harnesses the power of nature, only here it’s the sun. In 2008 the company fitted solar panels on the roof of the building and they’re now providing 20% of the energy the mill uses. What’s more this €4m investment will pay for itself in just seven years.
Where once local farmers brought in a few sacks of wheat, these days they bring wheat in tonnes. The family buy all their wheat through a co-operative scheme. The moment the grain arrives its protein and gluten content is analysed. It’s then washed and gently crushed to remove the outer casing or bran. Next it goes through a machine that analyses the colour of each kernel and separates out the darker ones. 'This was not possible years ago' says factory manager Dominico Natale 'and a dark or ‘ash’ grain when milled would put thousands of black flecks through the pasta spoiling the appearance'. Not so today; the chosen golden-hued grains are then repeatedly crushed under rollers, then sieved, then crushed again, finer and finer, until they become the creamy canary yellow semolina used to make pasta. ‘The perfect size is 300 microns’ Gennaro tells me. In my fingers it feels like soft sand.
Back in town we meet 80 year old Vincenza Vicenti who learned to make pasta at her mother's side from the age of 10. She's been using Mininni’s semolina all her life. She’s making orecchiette – meaning little ears – using nothing more than semolina, water, a knife and decades of experience. These little pasta shapes are a speciality of Puglia and often paired with simple sauces and vegetables such as turnip tops or broccoli.
It's the Mininni’s best semolina that's shipped to the UK to make fresh pasta for Waitrose, and the range includes spaghetti, linguini, penne, tagliatelle and of course orecchiette. Handy if you've not got an 80 year old Italian mama to make your pasta from scratch for you.