119. Pasta Gigi

It appears to be unknowable. If you Google “How many types of pasta are there in Italy?” you will get answers ranging from 67 to thousands. I would be inclined to put my money on the thousands, as every town seems to have its own specialties — by size, shape, ingredients, and preparation — not to mention the micro variations that exist house to house.

But now, of course, with the majority of Italian women working, some of these family recipes are being forgotten, sacrificed to the convenience of pre-made and store-bought. In an effort to preserve this knowledge, Australian food writer Vicky Bennison traveled from Italian village to village, filming the nonne — the grandmothers — preparing their pasta specialties, particular not just to their towns but probably also to generations of their own families. She turned it into a YouTube channel — “Pasta Grannies” said with the Aussie “passed-a” pronunciation — and over the past five years, it has grown to more than eight million subscribers.

Even if you have no interest in pasta-making yourself, it is impossible not to be charmed by these women, filmed in their immaculate aprons in their welcoming kitchens, proudly showcasing their specialties and explaining their methods, often in dialect. The youngest are in their 60s, with many in their 90s or even past 100.

97-year-old Giuseppa, from the Pasta Grannies cookbook (photo by Emma Lee)

They are living examples of functional fitness, as they wield their two-foot-long rolling pins — matterelli — over and over to flatten the dough over their century-old wooden pasta boards.

Leondina with her matterello, from the Pasta Grannies cookbook (photo by Emma Lee)

So I got inspired. My daughter Maria had perfected the art of pasta-making over the lockdown period, to the point where she never uses store-bought anymore. Could she teach me? “It’s easy!” said she. “Famous last words,” said I. Learning new things never comes easily to me.IMG_8675-1

But Maria was right. I dug out the dusty old pasta machine that we had given her fifteen years ago and only used once, and Yes! she and I made pasta together, with pesto Trapanese — a Sicilian red pesto with tomatoes and almonds unlike the more familiar green Genovese style — from the Pasta Grannies cookbook. And with her at my side, it was indeed reasonably easy.IMG_8696

But here’s the real test. Could I do it alone? I pulled out the machine again, and after some false starts fitting the pieces together, I made it work. It wasn’t pretty — the dough was scraggly instead of broad, uniform sheets — but it did the trick.

You have to spread the pasta on a tray so it doesn’t stick together

This time, I did the Umbrian “Fake Ragu” (meaning meatless) recipe from the book, and in all modesty, it was terrific.IMG_8762

Going forward, will I only use fresh pasta? I doubt it. Nonetheless, I am pleased to dip my toe into Pasta Granniehood, and to have a new skill to show for this lockdown year.


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