Greetings from sunny Puglia, where some of the dead olive trees have been cleaned up and there are clear green shoots on newly planted trees. This is a slightly truncated edition with an eye on cereals, because holidays.
On The Eternal Table, Karima Moyer-Nocchi undertakes a very deep dive into a little-known pasta called struncatura. When you surface after reading it, it will be with an enlarged understanding of Italian dialect and etymology, a sense of foodie myth-making in all its pomp and (if you are me) one burning question and one that merely smoulders.
Struncatura, you see, is a dried linguini pasta ostensibly made from the sweepings of the mill floor. It probably wasn’t, as Karima explains. But, if it is “just” linguini made with a mixture of whole grain and refined durum wheat and a bit of rye (whole grain?), what makes it so special that it has accreted so much quasi-historical baggage? Karima says it was “truly a gastronomic revelation” but not why. I suppose I’ll have to find out for myself.
The smouldering question: Do any other pastas have their own website?
p.s. The website is where I snagged the photo.
The irresistible rise of struncatura might just reflect an ancient human hankering for carbs, and specifically cereals. Nature has a terrific news piece summarising all the most recent research into How ancient people fell in love with bread, beer and other carbs. The author, Andrew Curry, has done a great job of explaining the hard work that goes into examining bits of ancient food and how new discoveries have changed our understanding of what people were eating. Well worth your time.
And naturally I can’t leave the topic without noting that it ought to be yet another nail in the coffin of the palaeo diet, although I also know that it is a zombie food myth that will haunt us forever.
Epicurious magazine offers a fascinating look at nixtamal, the ancient process of using alkali such as ash to unlock the nutrients in dried maize kernels. The piece, by Andrea Alisada, covers a huge expanse with loads of information about all aspects of nixtamal. The most important thing I learned:
The word nixtamal—pronounced by giving the letter x a soft “sh” sound—puts together two Nahuatl terms: nixtli meaning “ashes,” and tamalli meaning “cooked maíz masa.”
Well, I knew the second bit, not the first. I hope I never mispronounce it again.
The unanswered, and probably unanswerable, question is how did people discover the technique. Given that it makes maize so much more nutritious, I can imagine that any community that had figured it out would do better than one that had not, but how exactly the innovation came about remains a mystery, one on which the whole of MesoAmerican culture depends. Alisada quotes one of her sources as saying:
“You can’t really pound dry corn into anything, so somewhere down the line someone figured out how to add ash or lime in the cooking process, which made the corn bloom.”
But you can, of course, and in northern Italy they did just that, adapting the new grain to ancient puls to create what we now call polenta. Unfortunately, they did not learn about about nixtamalisation. As a result, pellagra, caused by the lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in the diet, was a scourge in northern Italy and much of Europe. It was never much of a problem in the cradle of nixtamal.
Einkorn and emmer are often considered ancient wheats, and are enjoying something of a renaissance among modern bakers. Part of the rebirth is finding good varieties to grow and understanding the properties of the grain. The varieties are, for the most part, conserved in genebanks, which would like them to be used either as is or as parents to breed new varieties. Good, then, to see that NordGen, the genebank of the Nordic countries, recently published a summary of a trial on 69 samples of einkorn and emmer. Two results stand out: the varieties did rather well despite a drought, and many varieties contained more protein than bread wheats.
Of course, the protein needs to be of the right type for good bread, and emmer and einkorn can pose challenges if you are used to working only with modern bread wheat. NordGen tested two einkorns and two emmers in a commercial protocol. The results were good, but with some of the same difficulties that home bakers come across.
The project is continuing with a larger grow-out this year to provide enough seed for more extensive test bakes and to make some available for sale. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.
Take care and stay safe.