At a fancy restaurant in Rome, recently, I found myself debating the existence of Kamut pasta with Maureen Fant, an authority on the subject. I was not winning.
Fant is an American-born food writer who has lived most of her life in Rome, and recently co-wrote the award-winning book, Sauces & Shapes: Cooking Pasta the Italian Way. Her husband, a lifelong Roman, is a fan of my home state of Montana. He ogled photos of elk on my phone while Fant squinted at my story of how a Montana farmer resurrected the ancient grain that is now branded as Kamut.
Starting with a few very large grains of wheat that were supposedly stolen from an Egyptian tomb by an American soldier during World War II, the farmer, Bob Quinn, grew and multiplied the seed. Now marketed as Kamut, the seed was identified as khorosan wheat, an ancient large-grained variety from Egypt.
“I’ve heard Kamut pasta is really good,” I concluded. “It’s widely available in the U.S., and supposedly quite popular in Italy.”
Her husband was fascinated with this Montana Kamut. She shook her head. “There’s no such thing,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“If it’s pasta, it’s made with grano duro,” she explained, Grano duro being Italian for durum wheat.”I don’t doubt that you can make noodles out of that grain, but it won’t be pasta.”
As I munched on a piece of crispy cod skin dipped in chickpea sauce, I discreetly checked Wikipedia on my phone and confirmed that yes, Kamut pasta does too exist.
I told her as much, and about how one of the bistros we passed en-route to the restaurant advertised “Kamut Pasta” on its specials board.
“But we wouldn’t eat at any of those places,” she said.
You can imagine how it went, a few days later, when I attempted to convince Fant that vegan, egg-free mayo is actually a form of real mayonnaise that is in fact superior to the version that contains eggs.
Traditional recipes such as for pasta and mayo can be vessels of history as much as flavor, and you don’t want to mess with the accuracy of history. But on the other hand, if all the evidence will be destroyed when the dishes are done, maybe its ok if you slip a little guanciale in the puttanesca? To me, it comes down to performance. If it performs correctly in my mouth, it’s the real deal.
A truffled chunk of porchetta (pronounced “pork-etaaaah”) arrived, and performed correctly in my mouth. Her husband asked if we have wild pigs in Montana.
“It’s one of the most dangerous animals to hunt,” I said. Some will attack and eat you if they can, which is why a lot of pig hunters carry semi-automatic weapons. But no, we don’t have wild pigs in in Montana, because the grizzly bears would devour them all.
He said something in Italian that I think translates loosely to “mamma mia.” I decided to quit butting heads with his wife and learn what I could.
The other crucial thing to know when buying pasta, she explained, is how it was dried. “Most pasta is dried in ovens; you don’t want that. It has to dry slowly.”
Back in my hotel room, I examined the bags of Gladiatore brand pasta I’d picked up near the coliseum. They included an assortment of multicolored ribbons and wheels and squiggly tubes. It was made with grano duro of course, but none of the packaging mentioned how slowly the pasta had been dried.
I took a walk, finding my way to a grocery store, where I found slow-dried pasta, including some calamari,which are supposed to resemble rounds of squid, and a bag of fregola sarda,multi-colored little balls of Sardinian pasta that look like a sugary breakfast cereal.
I returned home with an enhanced understanding of what pasta “should” taste like. And by these refined standards, that slow-dried, grano duro pasta I brought home was amazing.
But the Eden Brand Kamut fusilli that I picked up at my grocery store, on the other hand, not so much. The noodles were grainy and hard to cook al dente, going straight from crunchy to soggy.
It was indeed tough to acknowledge their existence. But this disappointment did not quite close the book on Kamut pasta.
That fusilli was made with whole wheat flour, rather than flour made from semolina, which is made from just part of the wheat grain. The whole wheat version may be healthier, and some people may appreciate its coarse quality, but a whole wheat noodle won’t perform the way a semolina noodle does.
I was able to find some Italian Kamut semolina noodles online–fusilli-shaped, no-less–at igourmet.com. This pasta, made by Monograno Felicetti, is purported to have been slow-dried in the fresh air of the high Dolomite mountains.
The blurb proclaimed khorosan wheat to be an ancestor of modern wheat, and that, “During cooking, it releases scents of white flowers and freshly peeled fruit. Its flavor is a combination of pine and macadamia nuts with hints of edible flowers.”
Take that, wine nerds.
While the noodles were in transit, I learned something interesting. Khorosan wheat is actually the same species as grano duro.
They are both Triticum turgidum, but Khorosan wheat is subspecies turanicum, while grano duro is subspecies durum. Kamut is about as close to being grano duro as you can get without officially being grano duro, but every other type of wheat of which you’ve likely heard, including common bread wheat, and specialized varieties like spelt, are different species altogether.
The noodles arrived. Side by side trials were conducted. The Kamut semolina noodles held their own against the top slow-dried noodles from Rome. They were durable enough to allow plenty of al dente gradations between crunchy and soggy. Tasting one every few minutes from a basket of noodles boiling in a large kettle of salted water, I was able to find the balance I wanted between chewy and soft. And when I spaced out and basically doubled the recommended cooking time, the noodles hung in there admirably, without becoming too starchy or even soggy. The flavor was mildly sweet and nutty, though I somehow missed the edible flowers.
The Gladiatore brand pasta, meanwhile–which was made with grano duro but not slow-dried–was decent, but inferior.
Point taken on the importance of slow-drying the pasta. Ditto for the grano duro. But with that being said, and with all due respect, Kamut pasta does exist.