What makes the best pasta?
A group of newly acquainted food writers wandered up the cobbled roads of a Roman hill, presumably toward a Michelin-starred restaurant, in April 2016. Our loose parade extended half a block, whatever that means in Rome. Atop the hill was an architecture firm, in the penthouse of which awaited an eight-course dinner.
I paused for a moment in the middle, by a chalkboard in front of a little bistro. It read, “Kamut Pasta.”
At dinner I sat at the end of a long table with Maureen Fant, an American food writer, and her Roman husband. I mentioned having seen a sign for Kamut pasta. Fant winced, as if I’d said “cockroach” pasta.
“There’s no such thing,” she stated. “I don’t doubt that you can make noodles out of that grain, but it won’t be pasta.”
“Well, I’m from Montana,” I tried to drawl. “We grow a lot of Kamut there. Most of it gets sold to Italy.”
Fant, who had recently co-authored the award-winning “Sauces & Shapes: Cooking Pasta the Italian Way,” was less impressed.
“If it’s pasta, it’s made with grano duro,” she finished, “grano duro” being Italian for durum wheat.
Fant segued into a general discussion on what distinguishes great pasta, including the important point that it be dried slowly, rather than kiln dried. If it’s good pasta it will say so on the package, she asserted.
Pasta family tree
In one of the lulls between courses, I pulled up on my phone a story about Montana farmer Bob Quinn, whose father was given a pint jar of large-grained wheat by an airman friend, who had acquired the grain at a bazaar in Egypt.
It was khorasan wheat, a primitive form of grano duro. The elder and younger Quinns first grew it for fun, but quickly realized it was special. Khorasan wheat has high protein content, is delicious, and didn’t seem to bother people with wheat-related food sensitivities. They named it Kamut, after the ancient Egyptian word for wheat, and began growing it commercially in the ’80s. They also licensed the name: free to anyone who grows true khorasan wheat and adheres to organic farming practices.
Kamut and durum wheat may be the same species, but khorasan is an older subspecies, and perhaps a direct ancestor of grano duro. Khorasan wheat grains are much larger, which is fun. And being grano duro, it makes great pasta. Before long, Quinn was selling most of his Kamut to Italy.
By the time I was up to speed, we were drinking dessert wine and using long forks to spin cookies around a vat of cotton candy fondue, at which point debates on topics like wheat genetics or the true meaning of pasta were off the table. My secret plan to stop at the little bistro with the Kamut pasta for some take-out en route to the hotel was foiled when our fearless leader took a wrong turn. Fant and husband, alas, were long gone — not staying at the hotel, they had driven to the restaurant in their car. I never did get to sample that Roman Kamut.
Upon my return to Montana, I began testing what I’d learned, and what I thought I knew, about pasta. I became an avid reader of labels. And sure enough, some brands advertised the meritoriously slow rate at which their pasta dries. Over a period of months I conducted trials, and the slowly dried noodles I tried were consistently superior to the ones that made no such claim. Air-dried pasta is not merely re-hydrated and heated when cooked, but resurrected into living, supple pasta flesh.
Meanwhile, I’d found a box of Eden brand Kamut fusilli, and eagerly brought it home. Alas, it was a caricature of Fant’s doomsday prediction. The grainy noodles were impossible to cook al dente. They went from completely crunchy to starchy and soggy in an instant. Not pasta, in other words.
I consulted the label. Not only were they dried in cold air, but were made with whole grain Kamut, not white semolina. Even I know you don’t do that.
Happily, pasta made from Kamut semolina does exist. Monograno Felicetti, which I found at igourmet.com, bills its pasta as “slow-dried in the fresh air of the high Dolomite mountains.”
The Kamut pasta held its own against the best slow-dried noodles that I’d brought home from Rome, or found during my research since then. It’s very forgiving pasta, and perfectly chewy when cooked al dente. The flavor was so rich and satisfying that it needed little more than some minced garlic, tossed into the pasta with olive oil while the noodles were piping hot.
With cheese and red sauce, and some ground elk, perhaps, it’s worth a galaxy of Michelin stars. That kind of simple recipe made with quality pasta, paired with a chalice of aged vindication, never does get old.