Piedmont means pasta. It’s also a signifier for truffles and Barolo, but those will be for another time. And pasta is one of my own personal passions. Admittedly, I don’t pursue my passion with quite the same single-minded dedication as Bill Buford — described vividly in his book “Heat” — but it’s high on my list of go-to foods.
When in Italy I’m drawn to different, unusual types of pasta as a jackdaw to jewelry. At home I love making it, saucing it and, of course, eating it. So when, on a recent visit to Piedmont, Italy, with a group of friends, an invitation arrived from pasta-meister Mauro Musso of La Casa dei Tajarin in Alba to observe him at work, followed by a degustazione of four or five different pastas, each teamed up with its own sauce and wines to match, I accepted without a moment’s hesitation.
Musso comes from a farming family. In 1994, when the farm was flooded out in a particularly vicious spell of Piedmont weather, the family was forced to abandon the land and move to Alba. Musso, by his own admission, was down and out. He looked for employment and wound up working for a supermarket. “Not my thing,” he admits, adding, “I stuck it for a bit, then decided I’d rather be my own boss.” His experience of working with large-scale food production and retailing led him in quite the opposite direction. His plan was to make pasta on an artisan scale from specialist, organic flours and sell directly to the public.
Three years ago, he carved out a tiny workspace (he calls it his laboratorio) on the ground floor of the family home. He produces two different shapes of pasta: the classic Piedmontese tajarin, after which the business is named (called tagliolini or taglierini in other parts of Italy), slender strands of egg-based pasta that melt on cooking into a state of gently yielding deliciousness and which lend themselves to all kinds of saucery; and casarecce, a more robust, egg-less type that demands correspondingly feisty accompaniments.
Variety of grains lend themselves to dozens of types of pasta
Within these two categories — fine and egg-based, chunky and egg-less — he makes 25 distinct kinds of pasta; the difference lies in the flours used.
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Why so many different kinds of flour? Musso is well aware of the rise in wheat allergies and intolerances in recent years, from the severe medical condition of celiac disease to the less serious but nonetheless genuinely felt discomforts grouped under the heading of gluten intolerance. His theory is that most of us have been raised on a diet of highly refined flour from a restricted range of wheats that have been selected over centuries, principally for their yields and resistance to disease. This limited range, he claims, could help to explain these digestive problems.
Rather than restrict himself to the classic white flour types used in industrial pastas, he experiments with flours milled from ancient varieties of wheat and rye, or from grains and cereals with little or no gluten such as millet, teff, quinoa, amaranth and carob.
The day of our visit, Musso’s mamma showed us into the laboratorio, where he was absorbed in the task of making casarecce from rye flour with the help of his trusty assistant, his dad. First the flour went into the hopper at the top of the pasta machine and water was dribbled in through a funnel. This was mixed to a loose, breadcrumb-like texture. Finally, as if by magic, this dry, unpromising-looking mixture emerged from the extruder as silken ropes of pasta, which Musso patiently snipped into short lengths wielding a huge pair of scissors, rather like Struwwelpeter. The cut pasta was laid on large, flat, sieve-like trays and transferred to walk-in drying rooms, where it would spend 15 hours. E basta!
We settled down in the small dining room adjoining the kitchen, a bottle of Carica l’Asino (a fragrant white from a long-lost Piedmontese variety) was uncorked and we tucked into our first taste of rye flour tajarin. The characteristic earthy flavor of rye was matched with perfect simplicity by ribbons of sage (“from the herb garden”) and lashings of lightly salted butter (“from Normandy — it’s the best!”). Casarecce came next, made from a blend of emmer wheat and rye (gorgeous, chunky texture and taste), which met their match with Musso’s homemade pesto loaded with basil, garlic, lightly toasted local hazelnuts and olive oil. The wine, similarly characterful, was a deep, golden Muntà, a blend of Cortese and little-known local variety Favorita from biodynamic grower Andrea Tirelli.
Delicate strands of tajarin from durum wheat wound themselves around tomato-infused mussels for our next dish, and the wine, an outstanding, mineral-infused Riesling “K” from Paul Kubler, took me straight back home to Alsace. By now we were beginning to flag. With the promise (or maybe the threat) of Musso’s homemade bunet (chocolate flan) hanging in the air, we negotiated a deal with our pasta-meister and skipped (with reluctance) a planned dish of whole-wheat casarecce with a meat sugo in favor of yet more silken tajarin with mushrooms, accompanied by a sprightly Dolcetto d’Alba from Rivella Serafino.
More than a demo, more than instructions on which pasta works best with which sauce, more even than a memorable meal, it turned out to be a lesson in the importance of valuing and using what grows locally to make flavorsome, healthy foods and wines of simple distinction.
The lesson is being learned and word is getting around about this pasta iconoclast — he’s one of the so-called “heretics” in a recent short film titled “Storie di eretici nell’Italia dei capannoni,” a lament for an Italy increasingly overrun by factories and warehouses. On Saturday mornings, customers stop by on their way home from the market in Alba to stock up on his pastas, and Musso is also building up a loyal following among local chefs. It’s an irresistible story of a fine artisan product from a passionate individualist rooted in his beloved Piedmont.