A few months back, my MA program had a guest lecture by the noted food historian Oretta Zanini De Vita. She is the author of Pasta, L’Atlante dei Prodotti Tipici, an exhaustive encyclopedia of the hundreds of pasta shapes that are produced in Italy. During the lecture, she mentioned having eaten pasta near Andria in Puglia made with grano arso, literally burnt grain. Grano arso is a product that was born out of the abject poverty that typified rural areas in Italy during the 19th century. Peasants too poor to afford flour would sweep up the grains burnt by the hot steam engine machines that harvested them in the fields. They would grind the grain into flour and mix it with water to produce pasta with a smokey flavor.
I was intrigued. A few days after the lecture, my dad came to visit me. We are marathon eaters and when we get together it is almost offensive how much we eat. I told him about pasta al grano arso and we decided to go look for it. We drove down to Andria (also home to my favorite food, burrata, a purse of mozzarella filled with cream) and called around until we found a restaurant serving it. It wasn’t as easy to locate as I had imagined. The use of grano arso has declined considerably and, while some pasta shops and restaurants are trying to preserve the tradition, it has disappeared from many menus.
When we finally did find orecchiette al grano arso, they was incredible–smokey and a bit grainy. The flavors in the pasta worked perfectly with the cime di rapa (turnip tops) with which they were paired. It was well worth the trip!