FOOD & DRINK: NOT LIKE MAMA USED TO MAKE

British supermarket shelves are groaning with long-life pastas, dyed pastas, dried pastas, filled pastas. The Italians must be bemused. For them, simplicity and quality are what counts.

The boom in pasta's popularity in Britain shows no sign of fading. Year on year, supermarkets continue to unleash newer and newer versions of Italy's oldest staple.

Many Italians who remember this country as a pasta-free zone, must be astonished by the variety on offer - though perhaps they are also bemused by the varying quality. We buy dry pasta, thick and thin, long and short. We also eat a lot of fresh pasta, stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach. But unlike the Italians, we are also into long-life and quick-cook pastas.

Some of us choose designer pastas of spinach green, tomato red, squid- ink black. Others seek out the fashionable hand-rolled Puglian peasant pastas. Healthy eaters can find whole grain pastas made from emmer wheat, similar to the earliest grains in the world. Even sufferers from coeliac disease can buy specialist pastas, made from maize flour.

We in the UK are also inventing new pastas. It was Sainsbury's who pioneered Pasta Fresca, a long-life "fresh" (as opposed to dry) egg pasta. (This type doesn't need to be stored in the fridge; it is sealed in packaging with a protective atmosphere, giving it several months of shelf-life - though it must be put in the fridge once opened.) The range includes filled pastas such as tortelloni stuffed with prosciutto or four cheeses, salmon capello di piete, and tortelloni verde with spinach and ricotta. Unfilled Pasta Fresca includes tagliatelle verde, salmon taglioni, and spaghetti alla chitarra. Sainsbury's also offers 13 types of filled fresh pasta, which easily outsells its dry pasta.

Tesco, not to be outdone, has introduced flavoured dry pastas. You can choose from garlic and herb volante; tomato and oregano stortoni; basil, garlic and hot pepper rigatoni. The company suggests you serve them simply, with some extra virgin olive oil, shavings of fresh parmesan cheese, and warm ciabatta bread.

A more important initiative, however, may be Tesco's introduction of authentic Italian regional pastas, such as the slow-dried pasta of Puglia made by Benedetto Cavaliere, orecchiette maritate (ears), ruote medie (wheels), lumache (short snails) and lasagnote (long, wide pasta). Tesco also sells the famous maccheroncini from the Marche region - finely cut strips of egg pasta, made by Pasta di Campofilone, best served simply with olive oil and parmesan cheese.

Marks & Spencer has majored on egg pastas. It has created its own variety, using special wheat, and has it made in Holland. Harvey Nichols specialises in high-grade pastas; it stocks all the top brands and the best of the regional varieties, from Puglia and the Marche.

Carluccio's of Neal Street, London WC2 (0171 240 5710), whose brand is sold in over 50 outlets, imports some 15 types of rugged, hand-made pastas from Puglia, and as many from Naples. Danmar, the Italian food importers (01784 477812), ships in a range which includes La Ruvida (a traditional, rough-textured pasta which encourages the sauce to cling to it), plus egg pasta from Spinosi in the Marche region, and a chewy pasta made from emmer, related to the old wheat strain spelt.

So, what do Italians make of this vast cornucopia of pasta? I asked the opinion of Susanna Gelmetti, who runs cookery schools in Puglia and Umbria. She has just published her first book, Italian Country Cooking, from which the pasta recipes on this page are taken.

Some of the pastas you can ignore, she suggests. Italians would not touch them. Quick pastas, for a start. "They are really disgusting." Nor is she impressed by the quality of the fresh pasta sold in the UK. "It's thick, gluey, rubbery. Unless you know someone who really knows how to make it, rolling it out thinly by hand, it's not worth bothering with."

Coloured pasta is a gimmick, she says. "It's made in Italy but only for the foreign markets." Italians don't eat it. It doesn't taste good. But there are good home-made fresh pastas, coloured with squid ink, tomato,or spinach."

"My view of pasta is completely classical," she says. "I don't want New Wave. It always amazes me that for a thousand years the incredibly poor people of southern Italy have eaten so well. I believe in keeping everything with very good, uncomplicated sauces." So she buys only the dry pastas.

The choice, she says, is between the different supermarket own-label pastas, made in Italy and bought in bulk, which brings down the price. They are perfectly OK, she thinks, but for a few pennies more you can buy better quality. For preference she goes for the three most dependable brands, De Cecco, Barilla and Buitoni (Buitoni run a Casa Buitoni Club, issuing quarterly newsletters with recipes, special offers, competitions. To join, ring Freefone 0800 604604, mentioning this newspaper).

Susanna Gelmetti also buys regional pasta if she thinks it responds to a certain sauce she's making. Favourite brands, from Puglia, are Benedetto Cavalieri and Pastificio di Trulli.

If you want to follow her lead, here are some of Susanna's authentic Italian recipes.

PENNE CON RICOTTA, LIMONE E BASILICO

Penne with ricotta, lemon and basil

A refreshing pasta, wonderful when it's followed by a crunchy salad of mixed leaves with plenty of fennel, carrots, spring onions, and maybe a red onion frittata. This is a light summer dinner to impress all your vegetarian friends, and it can be prepared in under half an hour. Remember to buy the freshest ricotta available. You could follow it with gloriously decadent stuffed peaches.

Serves 4

200g/7oz fresh ricotta cheese

thinly pared zest of one lemon, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

a generous amount of fresh basil leaves, roughly torn

400g/14oz penne or any short dried pasta

50g/2oz freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

In a large bowl beat the ricotta with the lemon zest using a balloon whisk, adding salt, black pepper and the basil. Cook the pasta in plenty of lightly salted boiling water. Add a ladle of water from the pasta to the ricotta mixture to moisten it a little and then place the bowl over the pasta pan for a few minutes to soften the mixture. When the pasta is al dente drain it and mix with the ricotta. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and drizzle with a little olive oil.

CONCHIGLIE CON RICOTTA E POMODORINI

Pasta shells with ricotta and tomatoes

This pasta brings back memories of glorious summer evenings, and long dinners spent chatting until the candles go out, then realising that it's nearly morning, so what could be better than a delicious plate of pasta, ready in 15 minutes, so easy that anyone still up can make it?

Serves 4-6

4 ripe tomatoes, chopped

90ml/6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

a generous amount of fresh basil leaves, roughly torn

salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g/31/2oz fresh ricotta cheese

400g/14oz pasta shells, or other similarly shaped dried pasta

100g/31/2 oz freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Mix the tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt and black pepper, leave to infuse for at least 15 minutes, then add the ricotta. Cook the pasta in plenty of lightly salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and toss with the tomato and ricotta. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan, and drizzle with oil.

ORECCHIETTE CON BROCCOLI

Apulian pasta with broccoli

An Apulian pasta par excellence. Because of the broccoli and the anchovies, this dish is very filling and only needs a good green salad and a cheese board to follow.

Serves 4-6

400g/14oz Apulian orecchiette or any short dried pasta

500g/1lb broccoli, trimmed into small florets

90ml6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, chopped

50g/2oz canned anchovies in olive oil, drained

2 fresh hot red chillis, chopped

freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano - the best Parmesan cheese - or 4 tablespoons breadcrumbs fried in about 15ml/1 tablespoon olive oil until golden

Cook the pasta and broccoli florets in plenty of lightly salted boiling water until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile, in a large sauce-pan, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic with the anchovies and the chilli peppers. Add the drained pasta and broccoli, mix together and saute for a further five minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan or breadcrumbs and serve.

FUSILLI AI PEPERONI

Fusilli with red pepper sauce

This dish was created in desperation. We were isolated in the country, and had only these few ingredients. Only use red peppers, the sweetest.

Serves 4-6

200g/7oz butter

3 red sweet peppers, cut in strips

90ml/6 tablespoons white wine

salt

a generous amount of fresh basil leaves, roughly torn

400g/14oz fusilli, or any short dried pasta

300ml/1/2 pint single cream

freshly ground black pepper

110g/4oz freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

In a pan, heat the butter and saute the peppers, adding the wine after a few minutes when they have begun to soften. When tender, add some salt and the basil and cook for a further two minutes. Then put the contents of the pan into a food processor and blend until creamy.

Cook the pasta in plenty of lightly salted boiling water until al dente. Meanwhile, put the pepper mixture back into the pan over a gentle heat and stir in the cream, black pepper and Parmesan. Drain the pasta, transfer into the pan with the sauce, toss well, serve at once.

INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY OFFER

Readers can order a signed copy of Italian Country Cooking by Susanna Gelmetti, published by Rosendale Press, for pounds 14.99 including p&p. They can also obtain a pounds 50 discount on an Italian Cookery Week; these run from May to September in Umbria and Apulia, and normally cost pounds 995 (including return flights, seven nights' accommodation, full board and wine, daily tuition, a one-day excursion, plus minibus transfers to and from the airport in Italy). Phone 0171 620 2121 for more details.

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