Thursday 30 August 2012

Gragnano pasta

I'm not a food expert (although I love food) so I don't often write about Italian recipes, ingredients, or post restaurant reviews.

But I do find the story of the pasta produced in the area around the town of Gragnano near Italy's Amalfi Coast to be really interesting. So, here's an article I wrote for the Italian news agency about the community, one producer, and its pasta

There is passion in the pasta produced by the workers in La Fabbrica della pasta di Gragnano, owned by the Moccia family.

After all, it's in their blood and runs through the community of Gragnano, near Naples in southern Italy.

“Making pasta in Gragnano is an ancient form of art that involves history, culture, patience, secrets, and traditions,” said the Moccia siblings, who took over the business from their father, Mario Moccia.

“To be born and raised in Gragnano means to be surrounded by the exalting taste and scent of the durum wheat semolina and from the pasta that comes from it....and, like an enchantment, you just can’t live without (it).”

The family has had a few business ups and downs. In 1976, Mario Moccia operated a business producing cheese, yet was so fascinated by pasta making that he bought a troubled pasta factory.

Moccia focused on revamping the factory in Gragnano, a city that lies between the gulf of Amalfi and the gulf of Sorrento, and for 500 years has been a community devoted to the production of great pasta.

However, in another reversal of fortune, the Moccia family was forced to sell their factory in 1994.

Mario Moccia's children still did not give up, even after their father's death.

In 2006, “as tribute to our father, we decided to start this pasta factory,” they explained, and began producing for export markets as well as Italian consumers from La Fabbrica della pasta di Gragnano.

They've been working very hard to live up to the storied history of their city, which at one time boasted as many as 300 pasta factories spawned by the region's spring water, mountain air, and ample sunshine needed to produce great pasta.

Pasta makers in Gragnano once draped great strands of spaghetti from rods along the city's wide main street, so the pasta could slowly and naturally dry in the warm sun and mountain breezes.

In fact, the city and region are so important to the production of great pasta that in 2010, Gragnano pasta obtained the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) mark, a European Community quality endorsement assigned in Italy.

The law is designed to ensure that only products genuinely originating in a specified region can be identified as such, to protect the reputation of the regional foods, promote rural and agricultural activity, help producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products, and eliminate inferior knock-offs.

That quality assurance is important to Gragnano where about a dozen pasta manufacturers remain.

The city of Gragnano boasts that its pasta has been renowned for its quality for centuries, mainly due to the ingredients and traditional processes used in production.

These include local, pure spring water, a particular kind of wheat, and traditional production methods including extrusion of the pasta dough through bronze dies to give it the desired length and shape, as well as a bit of roughness necessary to catch and hold pasta sauce after cooking.

Gragnano pasta is now exported across Europe, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Panama, Japan, India, and Singapore.

Thursday 9 August 2012

And, as an added bonus......

To practise Italian, and meet people here in Rome, I've joined an online organization called Conversation Exchange, which matches people by language skills.

For the most part, it's worked out well. I've connected with several native Italians who want to speak better English while helping me with Italian.

An added bonus has come with my new friend Laura, a native Roman who wants to be an English-language tour guide to supplement her teaching income.

So, our weekly get-togethers generally involve a private tour for me, in English, of some fascinating site, followed by a long coffee in Italian.

Last week, we explored Rome's fascinating Santi Quattro Coronati, a basilica that dates from as early as the 4th century and is devoted to four martyrs who became saints.

Although the church is a stone's-throw from the Colosseum, I hadn't yet gotten around to visiting it.

It's really gorgeous - lovely cloister, beautiful frescoes (especially if you ring the bell to get inside the St. Sylvester chapel) and an interesting history.

The church was built like a fortress - which was one of its original jobs, to protect the pope of the day who was living nearby in the Lateran Palace.

One of the first churches of Rome, construction was completed the end of the 6th century, then expanded under Pope Leo IV (847-855) in Carolingian style.

However, in the Norman Sack of Rome in 1084, a sizable chunk of the basilica was destroyed and a subsequent pope rebuilt only what was left. (Laura, an excellent tour guide, pointed out bits of evidence of this. For example, there are now two courtyards - the original plus the “new” courtyard established after the sack, over what had been a long stretch of the nave of the church. So now, the church looks strangely square.)

Anyway, in 1247, the chapel of St Sylvester, on the ground floor of the fortress, was consecrated; and decorated with frescoes telling the false tale of how Constantine gave the Catholic church sovereignty over the Roman Empire.

Inside the basilica are frescoes explaining the story of the four martyrs to whom the church was dedicated, and whose remains supposedly rest here.

The Four Crowned Martyrs - Santi Quattro Coronati - were reportedly four soldiers who became Christians at the time of Emperor Diocletian (284-305). The emperor ordered their execution when they refused to worship a god he chose.

By the way, a nun we met in the cloister said that later this year, the church is going to open the doors on a Gothic hall that is apparently filled with frescoes that are only now being made public.

The 13th century frescoes had been so well hidden that it actually served to preserve them in apparently fantastic condition.

Can't wait to see that!