The secret behind Italy's rarest pasta
October 20, 2016 12:44 PM   Subscribe

"[I]n a modest apartment in the town of Nuoro, a slight 62-year-old named Paola Abraini wakes up every day at 7 am to begin making su filindeu – the rarest pasta in the world."
posted by SansPoint (53 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I bet I know at least 3 chefs that will be starting to copy her process after they see this... it is stuff like this that - once they see the challenge - becomes the night after night after night obsession that results in some awesome sauce kitchen craziness. I may have to send them the article, then book a table like 2-3 weeks later... (on edit: perfect after 3 weeks, no, but the journey at that point will be pretty tasty.)
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:52 PM on October 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


That is just absolutely gorgeous. I mean....I have no idea what it would taste like, and I suspect a lot of the taste is flavored by the fact that you know how time-consuming and rare this is, but it's a beautiful pasta to look at, for sure.
posted by xingcat at 12:54 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


The best part of this is that it is rare not because the ingredients are expensive, in short supply, or hard to find, but because it is art and there are only a few artists who work in the medium. It's like music from an instrument only a few know how to play, or a language with only a few speakers.
posted by librosegretti at 12:57 PM on October 20, 2016 [32 favorites]


So, ignorant question here: I know that certain pasta shapes work better for certain contexts/sauces, and I do like pasta, but...am I the only one who thinks that it all pretty much tastes the same? I mean, given that it's all wheat + water + salt (and setting aside the issue of fresh vs. dried) why should I buy the $1.50 bag of dried wheat paste instead of the store brand for .99? What's so special about su filindeu other than that it's rare and therefore novel?
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:02 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder how she made a living before this, did the pilgrims pay for the pasta she took months to prepare, or the town? Hope she's making good money from the restaurants.

Greg_Ace, I'd mostly agree, the difference between this and angel hair is going to be pretty modest, but the aesthetic experience is not limited to just taste.
posted by skewed at 1:05 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


This BBC page is not accessible from the UK!
posted by parmanparman at 1:08 PM on October 20, 2016 [13 favorites]


There's a certain amount of difference in various shapes in how sauce clings to it and how it is exposed to the taste buds - the network in particular probably makes a difference here - but yes, probably not a huge difference. But food isn't just about taste. The appearance is lovely and unique, and there's the sense of communing with history of an area.
posted by tavella at 1:10 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


I mean, given that it's all wheat + water + salt

Ingredients and process. The above three ingredients cover the range from pita bread to sourdough to baguettes to spaghetti to lasagna. Then you have the quality of the eggs (pasta) or olive oil (rich breads such as focaccia)..

Once you are into baking (as I am) you can see that very subtle differences in things like baking/cooking time, proving time, kneading etc lead to tremendous differences in the final result.
posted by vacapinta at 1:13 PM on October 20, 2016 [15 favorites]


I think there's a pretty big taste difference between fresh pasta and dried pasta, but even that is really more of a texture thing.
posted by mayonnaises at 1:13 PM on October 20, 2016


Previously
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:16 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


It’s so difficult and time-consuming to prepare that for the past 200 years, the sacred dish has only been served to the faithful who complete a 33km pilgrimage on foot or horseback from Nuoro to the village of Lula for the biannual Feast of San Francesco.

This sounds is awesome and incredible and I want to try it more than anything.

But I also bet all pasta tastes a lot better after walking 33 kilometers too.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:16 PM on October 20, 2016 [15 favorites]


This BBC page is not accessible from the UK!

Hm. It's working just fine here in the colonies...

The article links to Gambero Rosso, which I'd not heard of, but some pretty high-quality food porn lies within:

Regional cuisine: Alphabetical guide to the foods of Sardinia
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:18 PM on October 20, 2016


I think the surface of the pasta would be much rougher, (micro textured,) than angel hair. Then it would hold onto sauce better. It would have a different mouth feel, but the fineness would be melt in the mouth, elegant. That is just a guess.
posted by Oyéah at 1:22 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh my, I have been in Nuoro for the Feast of San Francesco, and ridden with some of the pilgrims, but never tasted this pasta. I probably didn't deserve it, not having done the entire pilgrimage. The other food was delicious, though, and highly recommendable.
posted by mumimor at 1:24 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


..am I the only one who thinks that it all pretty much tastes the same?

Pastas are different mainly by their mouth-feel. There's nothing similar in how a mafalda, a bucatino and a fregola will behave, once the forkful is in your mouth.

And then: there are differences in the ingredients: leaving aside egg-based pasta, there's a tasteable difference between cultivars of wheat: average durum, Gragnano, Senatore Cappelli, Khorasan... (Of course, these are variants that haven't yet travelled much.) Finally there's a difference in the effect of your boiling water, according to its hardness - if it's too soft you'll have difficulty drawing off some of the starchy acqua di cottura that helps makes the sauce slurpier.

Of course: condiment is king - but how it's framed can make all the difference.
posted by progosk at 1:26 PM on October 20, 2016 [16 favorites]


It sounds like one of the key elements that make this pasta special as a culinary thing is texture: the article says it is half as thin as angel hair (.80mm thick, so this would be .40mm thick) but it is dried in 3 layers then broken into rough strips. So, unlike thread pasta like spaghetti or angel hair it's a textured strip, not a thread, ribbon, or shaped pasta, but partaking of each style. Neat.
posted by Blackanvil at 1:28 PM on October 20, 2016 [10 favorites]


Then comes the hardest part, a process she calls, “understanding the dough with your hands.” When she feels that it needs to be more elastic, she dips her fingers into a bowl of salt water. When it needs more moisture, she dips them into a separate bowl of regular water. “It can take years to understand,” she beamed. “It’s like a game with your hands. But once you achieve it, then the magic happens.”

I really like this turn of phrase: “understanding the dough with your hands.”
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:38 PM on October 20, 2016 [6 favorites]


I remember watching an Anthony Bourdain show where he was in (I think) China and he showed this guy who had been making noodles his entire life and he had this sort of paddle thing he would use to make them which he would push with his thigh and he had this deep indentation on his thigh from doing it for year and years and all I could think was man, those must be some good noodles.
posted by bondcliff at 1:40 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


(Also, the filindeu stretching process looks like part of this Chinese procedure in miniature. Always wonder whether there's an actual connection between traditions at such distances...)
posted by progosk at 1:46 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


“understanding the dough with your hands.”

I was teaching a child how to play the piano once, and I felt it was time to teach her how to transpose a piece of music from one key to another. (I think it was from C to F.) I was going to explain the process to her, tell her about steps, flats, etc., but, instead, on impulse, I just asked her to give it a try. She did it perfectly, using the Bb when needed. Astonished, I asked her how she did that.

She said, "It's like I have ears in my fingers."
posted by kozad at 1:51 PM on October 20, 2016 [34 favorites]


Exactly, progosk. I was going to say this is the same technique as for Chinese hand-pulled noodles. You knead the dough until it's extremely elastic, then pull with your hands, doubling the number of strands each time. It's just sauced differently.

And your question about traditions at a distance.. isn't the legend that Marco Polo brought pasta from China?
posted by antinomia at 1:53 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, legends...
posted by progosk at 1:57 PM on October 20, 2016


I tried for YEARS to make pasta at home. I bought at least 3 different pasta making gadgets (including a giant electric extruder I got at a thrift store) and tried tons of different recipes. It turns out there are two secrets to making great pasta, very quickly at home:

1) Use just semolina (not any other kind of flour), water and salt
2) Use a small mixing bowl, a rolling pin, and a knife, not any kind of gadget

I can make homemade pasta for my wife and I in under 15 minutes now, and I threw out all the gadgets and cookbooks.
posted by miyabo at 2:00 PM on October 20, 2016 [11 favorites]


Waving fields of macaroni!
posted by Death and Gravity at 2:03 PM on October 20, 2016


Progosk, the video you linked to is really interesting, thanks! I've never seen this 'rope noodle' before. The technique antinomia alluded to is probably 兰州拉面,as found in this video.

(And I could swear that there was a similar Korean noodle making video posted on Mefi before.)
posted by of strange foe at 2:06 PM on October 20, 2016


I don't know about korean noodles but this frozen honey dessert video and it's kin make the rounds semi regularly: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pCLYieehzGs
posted by mce at 2:09 PM on October 20, 2016


>(whose name means “the threads of God”)
> into 256 perfectly even strands
>the sacred dish has only been served to the faithful

*gasps*

no, it can't be
posted by pmv at 2:11 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


That squid ink su filindeu looks like edible carbon fiber.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:23 PM on October 20, 2016 [4 favorites]


But I also bet all pasta tastes a lot better after walking 33 kilometers too.

I kind of did this almost exactly a year ago, when on vacation in San Francisco. I walked something like 34-35 kilometers one day, and while it was not in rural Italy, it was certainly up and down a lot of hills. I can confirm our dinner, though not pasta, was very tasty.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:31 PM on October 20, 2016


That third picture is making me so hungry right now. I'm a bit surprised that some adventurous young ramen chefs haven't come to haunt their kitchens yet to learn how it's done. Some more videos and process pictures in a video montage format.
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:50 PM on October 20, 2016


This BBC page is not accessible from the UK!
I came across the same thing - here is a working link.
posted by winterhill at 3:15 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


This BBC page is not accessible from the UK!

BREEEEEEEEXIT!
posted by srboisvert at 3:40 PM on October 20, 2016 [8 favorites]


am I the only one who thinks that it all pretty much tastes the same?

A simple experiment you can do is get spaghetti and angel hair pasta, cook them both, and serve them with the same sauce.

They're the same exact ingredients, and the only difference is the diameter of the noodle. So you're controlling for exactly one variable.

Try them both and tell me if they taste the same.

I mean it's possible you'd still think it tastes the same, but you'd be classifying things like texture, mouthfeel, sauce to pasta ratio, and probably a bunch of other things, as being not taste. Which isn't invalid, but to me it's a dramatically different sensory experience, due entirely to a gauge difference in the noodle.

Su filindeu sounds like it would be more like eating a thickened soup (like shark's fin) than a traditional pasta.
posted by danny the boy at 4:22 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why 256 strands exactly, I wonder? Is that just the size of her table?
posted by rollick at 4:42 PM on October 20, 2016


256 is 2^8, or 8 doubling. One less or one more gets a range of 128-512. I'm guessing it's the largest number of doublings that works with the material at hand, so to speak.
posted by mce at 4:49 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow, the technique is similar to Chinese hand pulled noodles.

Why 256 strands exactly, I wonder? Is that just the size of her table?
These noodles are made by folding, so the total number of strands is going to be a power of 2. You start with a long thing of dough and fold it in half, stretch out, get 2 strands (2^1). Fold that in half again and stretch out, get 4 (2^2 =4). She must be folding the dough 8 times (2 to the power of 8 = 256).
posted by pravit at 4:50 PM on October 20, 2016


That's so cool, it's like pasta papyrus. Is there any other pasta that's shaped by drying separate parts together like this? I feel like the process reminds me of a dish at the edge of my memory, but I can't drag it out. Maybe I'm just thinking of roti jala.

> like shark's fin

Not that I've ever actually had it, but that was what I thought of too, just from the way sharks fin soup looks like a myriad of strands.
posted by lucidium at 5:02 PM on October 20, 2016


Su filindeu sounds like it would be more like eating a thickened soup (like shark's fin) than a traditional pasta.

There's a small photo of what looks like the soup, and it seems to have distinct shreds of pasta. I think that the layered drying process is key: the strands merge into a mat, and the mat is then broken into strips of lacy pasta. So the soup is similar to other soups thickened with large pieces of pasta, but in this case those pieces are like a mat or a sponge and will presumably hold the soup much more effectively.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:22 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


OK, so for those who are wondering what this is going to taste like... know how angle hair pasta from a box is very fine but sort of thick with a mouthful? This is sort of more like gnocchi in its fill and softness but fine like angel hair. What this means is it also clings and holds a sauce and melts as you mess with it. I'm mesmerized watching her make it. I've considered the impact of the texture pretty thoroughly at this point. I'm sort of insane for it right now. Now I don't get the round drying and then breaking into a sort of chit, because I look at this and just want to do wild shit with it closer akin to birds nests, but yeah... I think that if the winter turns harsh and I work off the half dozen major projects this winter, that I may be practicing some pasta basket weaving.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:23 PM on October 20, 2016 [4 favorites]


I was a little disappointed to see that you could get it in a restaurant. There are some things in this world that you should have to put in the time and devotion to experience. The faithful deserve their reward.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:29 PM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Try them both and tell me if they taste the same.

I have, and they do. I'm not discounting different mouthfeel/texture/etc., and I can detect those kinds of differences, but to me those are secondary issues and what I was wondering about specifically was taste. (thanks for all the replies!)
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:50 PM on October 20, 2016


“understanding the dough with your hands.”


Il faut mettre la main a la pâte.
posted by clew at 6:54 PM on October 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks. Because of this I'm now eating a large hunk of Parm straight off the block.
posted by slogger at 7:00 PM on October 20, 2016 [5 favorites]


why should I buy the $1.50 bag of dried wheat paste instead of the store brand for .99?


Leaving aside the question of whether different shaped pasta tastes differently (and I think they do), there are other variables which I think are easier to taste yourself. Certainly "pasta" is pretty much always the same thing, but there's a lot of variation in type and quality of both flour and oil. I know when we've tried the cheapest pastas, we find it cooks differently, and has a different taste and texture to better quality pastas, which are tastier, and have a better, more bouncy and robust texture.
posted by glitter at 12:28 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yes; it's probably the fact that the ingredients are so simple that makes pasta quality stand out. Cheaper pasta is made from softer flour, and is probably made from a softer dough, too. When it's cooked it goes from "raw" to "gluggy" relatively quickly, while proper pasta made from semolina flour is still al dente for a long time. When you eat the better pasta it doesn't dissolve in the mouth so quickly, so you appreciate its distinct taste and texture. Cheap pasta does dissolve, and at its worst it can be like eating a plate of floury goo.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:10 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


A good/simple indicator of the quality of wheat used in the pasta is the recommended cooking time - the higher, the better. Easy rule of thumb is to avoid anything under 10 minutes, except for very small/thin shapes, like capellini or pastina.
(That's if we're to trust what brands print on their labels, of course...)
posted by progosk at 4:47 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow, the technique is similar to Chinese hand pulled noodles.

You are not the only person to have thought this. Anyone who's curious about international noodle techniques should read On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta. Jen Lin-Liu travels the length of the Silk Road, stopping at various countries to try their local noodles, in order to get a handle on who invented the noodle. Her section on Italy was pretty relevant to this conversation.
posted by librarylis at 6:48 PM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, "International Noodle Techniques" is the name of my new jam band.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:44 PM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Further thoughts about filindeu: considering the Sardinian context (which is quite distinct from continental Italian food traditions), there are four specific aspects to rabbit-hole/beanplate:

- the fact that the end product is dried sheets of pasta, actually makes filindeu seem a variation on that other Sardinian mainstay, pane carasau. It’s almost like a lacy version of that - maybe not entirely by accident, given that Sardinia has a strong tradition in lacework to make ordinary things more fancy?

- what’s the most unusual aspect, to me, is that there is no other doubled&pulled pasta example in any Italian region - handmade pasta is always rolled/pressed/shaped by instrument (or hand), but if it’s hung, that’s only ever to dry it, never for gravity’s pull (like mian), and I've never heard of the doubling trick applied for automatic efficiency in thinning the strands. And though there is hand-pulling/stretching/flinging in working pizza dough, that’s leavened. So the specific aspect of pulling unleavened pasta, the doubling, and the salt&water trick that’s mentioned to get just the right elasticity, are what I’d be interested to trace.

- the pasta’s name is actually not as simply explained as in the article/video: the assonance to Spanish fideos (very thin noodles) is no mere coincidence, and the "God’s hairs" explanation is likely a post-hoc local rationalisation of what’s more probably an originally arabic etymology (Andalusian Arabic fidaws > Spanish fideos / Provençal fidiaux / fideis).

- the fact that this craft has dwindled into the hands of only three women in one town strongly mirrors another Sardinian story that was recently discussed, that of byssus-weaver Chiara Vigo. That there’s almost a pride of keeping women’s skills like these (and others) so rarified… says/implies a whole range of things about Sardinian culture.
posted by progosk at 5:26 AM on October 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Looking into the hand-pulled la mian pasta origin, a halfway point that may provide some link back to Western Europe is Turkmen-Uyghur Лагман - laghman (the exact logic of the lexical link to Chinese is still being examined) which are made similarly to the Chinese procedure, with rolling-pulling (though with hardly any folding/doubling, but interestingly, whipping them onto the rolling surface).

isn't the legend that Marco Polo brought pasta from China?

More on that here...
posted by progosk at 6:14 AM on October 23, 2016


So, has anyone looked into a machinery option for making this pasta, to increase the chances that it survives?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:37 PM on October 23, 2016


From the article: "Last year, a team of engineers from Barilla pasta came to see if they could reproduce her technique with a machine. They couldn’t."
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:31 AM on October 24, 2016


You can see the whole process on Vimeo - SU FILINDEU [No English].
posted by unliteral at 9:59 PM on October 24, 2016


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