Whilst recently dining in an Italian restaurant, on display I noticed The Geometry of Pasta by Jacob Kenedy and Caz Hildebrand (2010). Intended as decoration, I’m sure none of the neatly arranged copies had ever been picked up, let alone read. Given my love for everything Italian, I was intrigued, and after a quick scan of the introduction, popped onto Amazon to order myself a copy.
We British love our pasta. According to a 2011 article by the BBC, ‘pasta has topped a survey of the world’s favourite foods’. It states that since the 1960s, Spaghetti Bolognese has been a regular feature in British households at mealtimes. Pasta is undoubtedly one of the most simple yet versatile dishes, easy to prepare and cheap, but something worrying is happening. Many of our ‘classics’ have become unrecognisable from the original Italian versions; take spag bol for example, or carbonara with cream and pub lasagne accompanied with chips- all of the pasta cooked to a mush of course! Furthermore, we’re more than happy to chuck any sauce with any type of pasta we’ve got in the cupboard- carbonara sauce with rigatoni? spaghetti alla vongole (seafood spaghetti with clams) but with penne pasta instead? ‘Why not?’ I hear you shout. Well, there’s a very good reason why not, so stick around for some Italian pasta education!
The Geometry of Pasta is essentially a cookbook-cum-dictionary for different pasta types. According to Chef Jacob Kenedy, in order to enjoy pasta authentically, you must develop the knowledge of how to marry the right pasta with the right sauce- something only Italians instinctively know.
Pasta is very different across Italy. ‘In the poorer south, pastes of semolina and water are shaped by hand into chunky peasant forms’ and ‘north and north-central Italy, wealthier by far, uses expensive egg yolks and refined flours to make fine golden-yellow marvels, silky ribbons and tiny stuffed shapes like fine jewellery’. The sauces and ingredients also differ by region, for example seafood pastas are common in the southern seaside areas of Puglia, in Liguria as well as in Sardinia, whereas in-land areas like the hills of northern Emilia-Romagna are particularly well known for their luxurious pasta parcels filled with rich ingredients like ricotta, spinach and pumpkin. Meat-based sauces are also typical of this region such as the classic ragù alla bolognese originating from Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna.
It is said that there are over 300 shapes of pasta- ranging from the classic strings of spaghetti recognised around the world, to beautiful shapes like wheels, tubes, ribbons, twists, bows and delicious parcels. Although the majority of us British know our lasagne from our penne, and our rigatoni from our spaghetti, I would bet that not many of us have heard of, let alone eaten orichiette (little ears), dischi volante (flying saucers) or cappelletti (little hats)! The industrial revolution inspired many shapes, for example eliche (screws) and fusilli (spindles) and many have been inspired by nature such as the lumache (snails), conchiglie (shells) and one of my favourites- farfalle (butterflies).
For centuries these shapes have evolved alongside local ingredients, and using the right pasta with the right sauce really does make a difference to the taste. I have learnt that generally larger shapes work well with thick sauces whilst skinny shapes suit light creamier sauces. Filled pastas such as ravioli already have a lot of flavour, so a lighter sauce works well- for example butter and sage which gently coats the pasta. As already mentioned, a favourite world-wide is Spaghetti Bolognese, although it is fundamentally inauthentic. Italian cooks would not serve a thick ragù sauce with thin pasta ribbons- they would be much more likely to serve it with tubes to capture the sauce, or thicker longer pasta like tagliatelle. Linguine alla Carbonara is another ‘classic’ which has been modified. In Britain, it is commonly made with cream, has added onions, mushroom and sometimes even chicken, whereas in the classic Italian recipe, eggs are always used instead of cream, and the ingredients are just spaghetti or linguine, eggs, pancetta, parmigiana, olive oil, salt and pepper- simple.
Farfalle (butterflies) are also known outside of Italy as bow-tie pasta and are a favourite among children and adults alike. The ‘pinched middle of farfalle helps to keep them al dente when cooked, and catches a little sauce’. They are delicate, so work well with lighter vegetable sauces in the summer, rather than heavier meat-based sauces. One of my favourite dressings for pasta is undoubtedly pesto, and can be found in abundance in Genoa, Liguria, also known as the pesto epicentre of Italy. Pesto Genovese, I have learnt, should be enjoyed with trofie- a type of short torpedo-shaped pasta which originates from Liguria. To Ligurians, to use any other type of pasta would be going against tradition and ‘produce an ordinary dish instead of one which is sublime’.
I haven’t yet tried any recipes from the book, but it is full of delicious inspiration for the coming winter nights! - I quite fancy trying the tortelloni di ricotta (ricotta cheese tortelloni) on page 267. They are the larger versions of tortellini and according to The Geometry of Pasta, are the ‘pride of Emilia-Romagna’. They are ‘not normally made with meaty fillings, which would dominate the pasta, as well as being uneconomical’. It is common to find them stuffed with zucca (pumpkin). That’s got to be the perfect recipe for all of the left-over pumpkin in my freezer from Halloween! Although a vegetarian myself, I know my partner Joe would love the classic Tuscan tagliatelle all’ragù di cinghiale (tagliatelle in a wild boar sauce) on page 200- if only I knew where to buy wild boar meat in Wales!
I’ve certainly learnt a lot about different types of pasta and their traditional pairings of sauce from this pasta-bible, and if you’re a pasta aficionado like me, then don’t you think it deserves a place on your bookshelf?