At the heart of the Italian pasta story is the mind-bogglingly vast Barilla factory in Parma
It’s a museum exhibit that looks like stuff I’ve swept out of cupboard corners. Two small sheafs of dry brown spaghetti, not much longer than matchsticks, sit in small glass domes inside the cool stone walls of a former monastery outside Parma in northern Italy. And their claim to fame? They may well be the world’s oldest surviving sample of factory-produced spaghetti.
It’s difficult not to laugh. We’re in a pasta museum for a start and I jokingly wondered if it would be full of very old pieces of pasta displayed in glass cases. Now we’ve rounded a corner to find these samples from 1837 and 1838. They survived because they were the subject of a court case between a prison governor and a pasta manufacturer. Letters included samples sent by the governor to back his case for cancelling the contract. In his opinion the pasta wasn’t up to scratch.
Italians have taken their pasta deadly seriously for centuries. And the rest of the world has seen the funny side. It made for the best prank in television history on April Fool’s Day in 1957 when Panorama showed women in gingham aprons harvesting strings of pasta from trees and laying them in baskets. In 1950s Britain, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to believe that spaghetti grew on trees.
Pasta has been made in Italian factories since the 19th century, and we’re on a trip to see the heart of the Italian pasta story, the mind-bogglingly vast Barilla factory in Parma. The Italian food company is one of the world’s biggest food manufacturers with a €3 billion annual turnover. Its Parma factory is the biggest dried pasta plant in the world.
The factory floor is so vast workers use bicycles to get around. The company is on a mission to corner the carbs on our plates and persuade us to eat like Sicilians.
Sicilians eat the largest amount of pasta per head in Italy, we’re told, a whopping 30 to 35 kilos of it every year. In Ireland we average about three kilos per year per head.
Eleonora Allegri is Barilla’s senior European sales manager and she sketches out the company’s history before we don white coats and peaked hats to get a tour. A colour-coded world map shows just how vast Barilla is. “Except in Africa, we are everywhere,” Allegri says.
The company history is a story of fathers and sons, ambition and expansion. Barilla grew from a city bakery run by Pietro Barilla senior in 1877 to a pasta factory in 1910 built by Pietro’s son Riccardo. Later Riccardo’s son, the handsome Pietro junior took the family business global. He built a larger plant on the outskirts of Parma and in 1970 he sold it to an American multinational. Nine years later Pietro Barilla bought it back, earning himself a place in the heart of Parma’s citizens for bringing it all back home. He died in 1993. His three sons, Guido, Paolo and Luca are now in charge.
In the wood-panelled reception building there’s an enormous black-and-white photograph of Barilla factory workers taken in 1921. Riccardo Barilla sits squarely in the centre in a three-piece suit. Behind him the men and women workers in aprons are arranged in tiers. A toddler in a white dress sitting on a carpet in front has turned her head as the picture is taken and become a blur.
These days 600 people work on the factory floor in three shifts; 100 of those are maintenance crew for the machinery. The durum wheat is milled, mixed with water or egg, and then kneaded, cut, dried, packed and stacked. The factory makes 1,000 tonnes of dried pasta every 24 hours.
No human hands touch the food from wheat to finished, sealed box. The machines do the work. Thirty trucks of durum wheat (70-80 per cent of it Italian, the remainder Canadian) are piped into the mill on site every day. The milled durum wheat, or semolina, is funnelled into one of 20 enormous machines, each capable of making six tonnes of pasta an hour. They make a deafening clattering sound and there’s a distinctive smell of wheat, not yeasty like bread but a flatter baked wheat smell. A fine patina of semolina dust covers everything, even the Barilla bike, which I’m allowed take for a very brief spin.
Each of the 20 machines can make up to eight different shapes of pasta, and it takes nine hours to take the wheat from its raw state to the finished dried and packed pasta. Six of those hours are drying time, Allegri explains. “If you get white spots on your pasta when you cook it, that means it hasn’t been dried slowly enough.”
Why so much variety in shapes and types? “Because we love pasta and we want to change, every day change,” she says, slightly surprised at the question. I may have reaffirmed the view that non-Italians just don’t get it when it comes to pasta.
Her colleague Claudio hands me a sheaf of freshly cut spaghetti from the bowels of one of the machines. They make three different grades of spaghetti, numbered according to size. It’s smooth and pliable before it dries to snapping consistency. Boxes of discarded pasta and gnarled hunks of dough lie in boxes. Later we’ll see them in huge vats. These scraps, called sfrido,are destined for pet food. So even the dogs and cats of Italy get their share of pasta.
In the vast warehouse 54 robots are in charge – huge robotic fork lifts that follow tyre tracks on the concrete floor to the millimetre. It took a decade to phase in the robots and retire the warehouse workers, Allegri says, so no one lost their job to a machine. A white-painted square shows the area where it is safe for humans to stand. Otherwise we walk in designated human zones, and wait at pedestrian crossings to let the robots through. Claudio steps in front of a robotic forklift coming barrelling towards him at a fair lick. It stops centimetres from his face thanks to its sensorat its base.
Over lunch (tagliatelle with a beef and pork ragu), we hear how Barilla is Italy’s most popular pasta brand. Their spaghetti no 5 is the biggest seller in Italy. They control about 35 per cent of the Italian pasta market. It hasn’t been sold widely in the UK or Ireland until now because of the high upfront costs demanded by British supermarkets to put Barilla on the shelves.
That afternoon we visit the sauces factory, based in a small village called Rabbiano. As we step out of the car we can smell basil. Inside there are crates of fragrant fresh basil stacked floor-to-ceiling. The basil is for the pesto they make for four months of the year, while Italian basil is in season.
Back in the city we visit the Academia Barilla which was built in part of the footprint of the old factory. It houses a cookery school, auditorium and a library with 11,000 books on gastronomy. I spot a copy of Michael Pollen’s Cooked. The earliest book is an architectural treatise dating from 1569, a time before tomatoes in Italy.
Throughout the press trip, the Barilla executives seem a little anxious about what we might write or video. It could be because of the furore after Guido Barilla told an Italian radio show last September that he would not feature a gay family in an advert for their pasta, as the concept of the traditional family was a fundamental value of the company. He issued a Twitter apology shortly afterwards and later the company announced it was setting up a new “diversity and inclusion board”.
Back in the Academia Barilla, a group of people from the company’s Mexican arm is on a team-building morning of cooking. They’re making tortelli d’erbetta, a typical Parma dish of fresh pasta stuffed with Swiss chard or spinach and ricotta. One man is rolling yellow dough through a pasta maker, the dough stretching and thinning with each turn of the mangle. He’s concentrating but smiling as a colleague waits with a piping bag full of filling. It’s as far from machine-made pasta as you can get. But then both have existed alongside each other for well over a century here.