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New At The Ciao House: Burnt Wheat Pasta From The Heel Of The Boot!

To most chefs “pasta nero” means pasta died black with cuttlefish or squid ink.  In parts of Southern Italy, pasta nero gets it’s name from being made with “farina arso” or literally, “scorched wheat.”  Puglia (Apulia) has historically been one of the poorest regions of Italy.  According to the local legends, after the peasants had spent the fall harvesting durum semolina wheat, the fields would be burnt to prepare for the next year’s harvests. The wealthy landowners would allow the peasants back on to the field to collect whatever burnt husks of wheat remained, which they would use to prepare this peculiar pasta.

Pasta Nero made from scorched wheat has had somewhat of a comeuppance in the last few years, especially as chefs rediscover traditional regional foods, and elevate “la cucina povera.”  We carry this Taglietelle from Gina e Sofia, a small producer in the southernmost Salento region of Puglia, their version is malty and toasty with a slightly cinnamon finish.  Its hard to go wrong with the burnt pasta and a bit of grassy Sicilian olive oil, Calabrian peppers, and Pecorino Romano, but Great Ciao Jessica also highly recommends simply tossing it in our ridiculously awesome French cultured butter from Rodolphe le Meunier to bring out all of the pasta’s subtle nuances.  We can’t argue with that.

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New at Great Ciao! Pasta from Gragnano Italy

Last week a new pasta arrived in Minneapolis, by way of Gragnano Italy, a small town in the province of Naples. Alfonzo and Pasquale Cesarano are the fourth generation of pasta makers at Le Antiche Tradizioni di Gragnano.  Their pasta is made using non-GMO durum wheat (semolina) grown in the hilly areas surrounding their town (most pasta is made with imported flour.)  The dough is extruded through bronze dies to create the rough surface that allows for the sauce to cling to the noodles.  Gragnano’s “main street was laid out expressly to capture the mountain breeze mixed with sea air back when pasta makers hung spaghetti on drying rods like laundry,” according tо а Forbes Life write up.  Although that aspect of the production has moved indoors, the art of slowly drying the pasta has remained.  The longer drying time functions to preserve the nutrients in the wheat, to create a better texture and nuttier flavor – not to mention pasta that doesn’t fall apart while boiling.

But most importantly, these are some darn good noodles. Straight out of the pot the noodles were rich and and creamy in flavor with a meaty toothyness.  The town of Gragnano is known for its paccheri, and their version lives up to its expectation.  Theorecchiette are the prettiest we’ve ever seen.  We are adding restaurant and retail sizes of pasta from Le Antiche Tradizioni di Gragnano, to our list of great traditionally made pastas, so that we can offer a variety of shapes and sizes from the producers who make them best.

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M’Hamsa Couscous from Les Moulins Mahjoub

We’ve been seriously smitten with m’hamsa couscous from the Mahjoub family for a few years now, so we are happy to see them getting much deserved attention from the powers that be at the SOFI awards.

“July 2, 2012,Portland,ME– The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, Inc, named Les Moulins Mahjoub Hand-rolled Couscous Winner of the 2012 SOFI™ Gold Award in the category of Outstanding Pasta, Rice or Grain”

Les Moulins Mahjoub is a family owned cooperative of twelve brothers and sisters, with each overseeing an aspect of the production.  Between the twelve of them, they own several organic farms in different environmentally diverse regions of Tunisia – from the deserts of Tatouine (its a real place), to Mediterranean Tunis, and the lush Mejerda Valley – which served as major grain growing region for the Roman Empire. It is in theMejerdaValleythat the Mahjoubs grow the wheat used to make their m’hamsa couscous.  The only ingredients are durum wheat (semolina), extra virgin olive oil, salt and water.  Again setting themselves apart from the competition – the Mahjoubs use their own extra-virgin olive oil in everything they make from the sundried tomatoes, to the couscous.

“M’hamsa” is a style of couscous that has become increasingly hard to find – even in Tunisia, where industrial couscous have long replaced the ones that are painstakingly rolled by hand, a process that takes twelve days start to finish.  Semolina flour is sprinkled with water, and rolled by hand in a shallow ball, until small bits of grain clump together.  Once enough balls have formed, the remaining flour is sifted out, and the process repeats itself.  The couscous are sundried over the course over the next few days, then rolled in olive oil, sprinkled with a bit of salt, and left to cure in the sun.

These are couscous with terroir.  When you stick your nose in the jar, you’ll smell the toasty aroma of the couscous baking in the Mediterranean sun and the smokiness of the nearby outdoor ovens.  Inspect a few in your hand, they are beautiful little irregular pebbles of semolina.  A far cry from Israeli Couscous, which are perfectly spherical and don’t taste like much.

These delicious couscous are available in both retail and foodservice sizes.  Once you taste them, you might be convinced to pick up a nine kilo tin for your home use as well.  They taste supurb combined with any of the other tasty sundries made by Les Moulin Mahjoub.  The Mahjoubs also bottle their own tomato couscous sauces, for a dish that bears striking similarities to Italian cuisine – until you realize thatTunisis only a few miles away fromSicily.  We like them in a chilled couscous salad dressed with olive oil, a bit of their traditional harissa, chopped cucumbers, sundried olives, marcona almonds, and our Stickney Hill chevre.

 

 

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