Italians admit 'posh pasta' is little more than dried macaroni

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In delicatessens, it comes in heavy, brown-paper bags or extravagantly thick cellophane packaging. Sometimes it is adorned with ribbons, and labels that look as if they have been written by a master calligrapher. It is posh pasta, also known as "artisan pasta", pasta made "with select ingredients", "without conservatives or colouring". And it costs the earth.

The supermarkets have got into the act. Under their own labels, Waitrose and Sainsbury's sell posh pasta - conchiglioni or lumaconi at Waitrose; "Taste the Difference" varieties at Sainsbury's - for between £1.89 and £1.99 per 500g pack. In the same stores, humbler pasta varieties sell for as little as 34p a pack. Yet the cheap ones may be just as good.

A leading Italian food consultancy says the fancy labels on such highly priced products are not worth the paper they are printed on. The pasta inside is often no better than more plebeian varieties. The Italians may or may not have invented pasta - they fiercely dispute the idea that Marco Polo brought it back from China - but they are closely identified with the stuff today. Italian-made pasta reaches every corner of the world. Yet even Italians get taken for a ride by posh pasta.

Total Quality Food Consultants (TQF), a company in Verona, is determined to bring honesty and transparency to the pasta world. Posh pasta is often known in Italy as pasta artigianale, artisan pasta. With products such as cheese or cooked meats, artigianale means food produced usually in smallish quantities by craftsmen using traditional techniques.

But when pasta producers package spaghetti or linguine as pasta artigianale, they are pulling the wool over their customers' eyes, TQF's founder, Giuseppe Patat, says. That is because all such dry pasta, whether called artigianale or not, is produced in factories. The artigianale tag is added because at some stage there has been human intervention, perhaps in snipping the pasta to the desired length, or putting it in the bag. But that has no bearing on the pasta's quality.

The image conjured up by the word is of grizzled craftsmen painstakingly rolling out the pasta, slicing it, then drying it in the Tuscan sunshine. Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Orecchiette, for example, sold at £1.99 per 500g pack, is "dried in a traditionally slow way for an authentic rough texture and a fuller flavour", the company says. But the idea that such pasta is hand-made is as remote from industrial reality as the old spoof about spaghetti growing on trees.

TQF's harsh words on artisan pasta came at the mecca of all things artigianale, the Slow Food Movement's latest Salone del Gusta food festival in Turin. Mr Patat's criticisms apply to dry pasta. Fresh pasta, often made using eggs, is a different product and is combined with different ingredients. But the advent of pasta fresca in Britain has given retailers another opportunity to take their middle-class patrons to the cleaners.

In Britain the idea has taken hold that fresh pasta is superior to dry pasta. That is rubbish, Italian cookery experts say. "This misconception has arisen in Britain because of the use of the words 'fresh' and 'dried'," says cookery writer Anna del Conte, author of Gastronomy of Italy. "Since by implication that which is not fresh is stale, or is second-best in some way, the phrase 'fresh pasta' implies the other kind is not all that it might be, even perhaps a bit off. Ninety per cent of British-made fresh pasta is worse than Italian dry pasta because the fresh pasta is made with British flour which is full of additives."

The best pasta available in Britain may well be an apparently humble product such as Sainsbury's Italian fusili, price 34p. Snob value: Nil.