A group of newly acquainted food writers wandered up the cobbled roads of a Roman hill, presumably toward a Michelin-starred restaurant, in April of 2016. Our loose parade extended half a block, whatever that means in Rome.
Atop the hill was an architecture firm, in the penthouse of which awaited an eight-course dinner. Our fearless leader, absorbed in conversation, kept a good clip, and the folks at the back were getting steadily left behind. I paused for a moment in the middle, by a chalkboard in front of a little bistro. It read, “Kamut Pasta.”
We made it to the metal and glass building, to my mild surprise, and took an elevator to the top. I sat at the end of a long table with Maureen Fant, an American food writer, and her Roman husband.
I mentioned having seen a sign for kamut pasta. Fant winced, as if I’d said “cockroach” pasta.
“There’s no such thing,” she stated. “I don’t doubt that you can make noodles out of that grain, but it won’t be pasta.”
“Well, I’m from Montana,” I tried to drawl. “We grow a lot of kamut there. Most of it gets sold to Italy.”
“Montana?” perked up her husband, who wore jeans.
Fant, who had recently co-authored the award-winning “Sauces and Shapes: Cooking Pasta the Italian Way,” was less impressed.
“If it’s pasta, it’s made with grano duro,” she finished. Grano duro being Italian for durum wheat.
Fant segued into a general discussion on what distinguishes great pasta, including the important point that it be dried slowly, rather than kiln-dried. If it’s good pasta, it will say so on the package, she asserted.
The meal continued, every course arriving with its own glass of wine, each of which brought a new crescendo of conversation, as we ogled the menu and told the food writer equivalent of fish stories. I was showing elk photos on my phone to Fant’s husband, who ogled the mountains beneath their feet as much as the animals themselves, while I ate more than my share of spare rib gnocchi.
As I washed down the last succulent piece with a gulp of Chianti, I reiterated that kamut pasta is an actual thing, finishing my story about the signboard outside the little bistro.
“But we wouldn’t be eating in any of those places,” Fant said.
In one of the lulls between courses, I got my phone back and pulled up a story about Montana farmer Bob Quinn, whose father was given a pint jar of large-grained wheat by an airman friend named “Sparky” Sparks, stationed at Ft. Benton, who had acquired the grain at a bazaar in Egypt.
It was khorosan wheat, a primitive form of grano duro. The elder and younger Quinns first grew it for fun, but quickly realized it was special. Khorosan wheat has high protein content, is delicious, and didn’t seem to bother people with wheat-related food sensitivities. They named it kamut, after the ancient Egyptian word for wheat, and began growing it commercially. They also licensed the name: free to anyone who grows true khorosan wheat and adheres to organic farming practices.
Kamut and durum wheat may be the same species, but khorosan is an older subspecies, and perhaps a direct ancestor of grano duro. Khorosan wheat grains are much larger, which is fun. And being grano duro, it makes great pasta. Before long, Quinn was selling most of his kamut to Italy.
By the time I was up to speed, we were drinking dessert wine and using long forks to spin cookies around a vat of cotton candy fondue, at which point debates on topics like wheat genetics or the true meaning of pasta were off the table. My secret plan to stop at the little bistro with the kamut pasta for some quick take-out en route back to the hotel was foiled when our fearless leader took a wrong turn. Fant and Roman husband were long gone—not staying at the hotel, they had driven to the restaurant in their car. We regrouped at a bar and eventually found our way home.
But when in Rome, alas, I never did get to sample that Roman kamut.
A Pasta Re-education
Upon my return to Montana, I began testing what I’d learned, and what I thought I knew, about pasta. I became an avid reader of labels. And sure enough, some brands advertised the meritoriously slow rate at which their pasta dries. Over a period of months, I conducted trials, and the slowly dried noodles I tried were consistently superior to the ones that made no such claim. Air-dried pasta isn’t merely re-hydrated and heated when cooked, but resurrected into living, supple pasta flesh.
Meanwhile, I’d found a box of Eden brand kamut fusilli, and eagerly brought it home. Alas, it was a caricature of Fant’s doomsday prediction. The grainy noodles were impossible to cook al dente. They went from completely crunchy to starchy and soggy in an instant. Not pasta, in other words.
I consulted the label. Not only were they dried in cold air, but they were made with whole-grain kamut, not white semolina. Even I know you don’t do that.
Happily, pasta made from kamut semolina does exist. Monograno Felicetti, which I found at iGourmet.com, bills its pasta as “slow-dried in the fresh air of the high Dolomite mountains.” Moreover, it contains “unmistakable hints of pine and macadamia nuts with subtle nuances of edible flowers.”
The kamut pasta held its own against the best slow-dried noodles that I’d brought home from Rome, or found during my research since then. It’s very forgiving pasta, and perfectly chewy when cooked al dente.
I’m not sure I tasted any macadamia nuts, but the flavor was so rich and satisfying that it needed little more than some minced garlic, tossed into the pasta with olive oil while the noodles were piping hot. With cheese and red sauce, and some ground elk, perhaps, it’s worth a galaxy of Michelin stars. That kind of simple recipe made with quality pasta, paired with a chalice of aged vindication, never does get old.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.