Although quintessentially Italian, pasta-makers are increasingly reliant on imported wheat. We meet the man shaping a more sustainable future for its production.
No food symbolises Italy better than pasta. Shaped into hundreds of forms, from ear-shaped orecchiette to twisty tubes of campanelle, it is a testament to the imagination of Italians. In fact, in spite of faddy diets that banish wheat and crow at carbs, the average Italian consumes 24kg of the stuff every year – so much that farmers aren’t able to grow enough durum wheat, its essential ingredient, to meet demand.
Today one in three packets of pasta uses imported grain, which travels thousands of kilometres before being milled and transformed into the finished product. Italian farmers also ship their wheat great distances to be processed. Entrepreneur Massimo Mancini feels that there’s a better way.
A native of the sleepy hilltop town of Monte San Pietrangeli in the Marche, Mancini is spearheading a pasta revolution. Based in a spot better known for shoemaking, he promotes a local approach that looks to the past. “My aim is to make pasta the way we used to, with all the steps under one roof,” he says, his gaze fixed on a verdant field of young wheat that in a few months’ time will turn to a golden hue. “These days pasta brands operate the factory, farmers sell wheat and someone else runs the mill. The environmental impact is massive.”
Mancini has studied the problem in detail. He earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Bologna, where his thesis focused on pasta’s supply chain. He sought out big players, such as Barilla, to conduct his research. In 2000 he returned home to experiment with wheat varieties on the family farm, where for two generations before him the Mancinis simply cultivated grain. Soon he was turning out spaghetti in small batches with the help of a producer in Abruzzo.
He started his own pasta factory in 2010, placing the discreet low-slung structure into the hillside next to one of his wheat fields. Today he oversees a mill and more than 400 hectares in the surrounding fields. He alternately grows wheat, peas or sunflowers each season to ensure the soil stays fertile. Spring water from the nearby Sibillini Mountains mixes with semolina in a specially modified pasta machine, where he makes a handful of types. They include penne made from turanicum, a wheat variety with low gluten content that is easier to digest (and appeases an increasingly fussy mass market).
In place of a Teflon trafile (the cast used to shape the pasta), Mancini’s pasta passes slowly through heavy bronze versions, which give the surface a rougher texture to better allow sauce to cling to it. “Industrial pasta is dried at high temperatures in a few hours and loses its nutritional value and flavour,” he says. With this in mind, Mancini’s pasta is air-dried at lower temperatures in special cabinets for up to 45 hours.
Mancini then excuses himself to take a call from an importer in Vancouver – a new market for him – who wants to sell this Italian-made pasta to chefs in restaurants and speciality food shops. “This is an agricultural product, not something industrial,” says Mancini. “Pasta is more than just a vessel: it represents a tradition. That’s what I’m selling.”