It’s what’s in it that makes it what it is...
by Roz Cummins
They met at a previous job—they started the same day—and discovered while chatting on their breaks and over lunch that they both enjoyed experimenting with making pasta in their free time. It turned out that they had attended culinary schools that were just a few blocks apart when spending a junior year abroad in Florence, Italy. Leigh Foster attended the Lorenzo de Medici School; Rachel Marshall attended the Apicius Culinary Institute, and later, back home in the states, the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Over time, they talked about opening a pasta business together—one that would emphasize ingredients that were local, delicious and fresh. They planned to save their money so that they could leave their jobs and start their business in the spring when the farmers markets opened and they would have access to locally grown quality produce.
Fate stepped in, however, and the two friends who started work on the same day were laid off on the same day as well, a few months short of spring. They looked at this as a catalyst rather than a setback, and so Nella Pasta was started.
They got their license by the end of the month; rented space at CropCircle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain, started investigating sources for their ingredients and experimented with several recipes for pasta dough to find ones that they really liked. The two partners try to visit all the places from which they source their ingredients: They get Narragansett Creamery cheeses from Rhode Island (“a super creamy ricotta”) and produce from Springbrook, Littleton and Allandale Farm, Brookline. At Rise and Shine Farms in Marshfield, Massachusetts, Leigh and Rachel helped plant the onions they will use in their pasta fillings.
For the pasta itself, they source some of the wheat from Four Star Farm in Northfield, Massachusetts. They use Four Star’s hard red winter wheat and blend it with durum and unbleached, unbromated all-purpose flour.
As they make decisions about what flavors to offer, Leigh explains, they “try to follow the crop calendar. Our plans depend on what’s in season and what’s available. Two summers ago we had hoped to use a lot of tomatoes, but there weren’t many around due to the weather and the blight, so we had to change our plans and we used more broccoli instead.”
Until recently, Leigh and Rachel have sold their pasta at farmers markets and have had the opportunity to meet their customers and talk with them about what they like and how to prepare the pasta. “It really doesn’t require a sauce,” Rachel explains, “all the flavor is in there already. All it really needs is some butter and some grated cheese.”
At the farmers markets, they offered linguine, fettuccine, spaghetti and rigatoni in a wide variety of flavors, including fresh sage; roasted winter squash and pumpkin spice; roasted beet; herbs de Provence; and whole wheat and ground flaxseed, to name a few. This season, the plan is to pare down to only fettuccine, continuing with all of the flavors that they previously offered. The wheat and ground flaxseed, in particular, will always be available as it is a customer favorite.
The business has recently expanded into ravioli, and as a result their focus will be on producing different variations of it throughout the year. During the spring and summer Swiss Chard and Currant; Broccoli, Feta and toasted Cashew; Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese; Roasted Red Pepper, Goat Cheese and Chive; Zucchini and Caramelized Onion; grilled Balsamic Eggplant and White Bean; and Fresh Corn, Caramelized Onion and Thyme. In the fall and winter they will move to Brown Butter, White Bean, Cranberry and Thyme; Smoked Mozzarella, White Bean and Sage; Kale and Currant; Roasted Winter Squash and Sage; and Mushroom Duxelles.
To prepare for their switch to mostly ravioli, they are putting their extruder aside for now and are purchasing a combination sheeter/ravioli machine from Arcobelano. The extruder is excellent for making short pastas and long pastas such as linguine and fettuccine, but it can generate heat as it pushes the dough out, even to the degree that it can partially cook it. The sheeter will produce large, thin sheets of dough perfect for making ravioli without exposing it to heat.
When I asked Rachel and Leigh how they came to name their company Nella Pasta, I said, “Doesn’t Nella mean ‘in it’?” They replied that it does, and that they chose the name because the flavor is already in their pasta—customers don’t really need to add anything to it. Since they originally named the company, they say they’ve also come to understand that it refers to the quality of the ingredients that they put into their product. Nella Pasta is what it is because of the fresh, delicious ingredients that go into it. Still, I’m surprised that they didn’t name their company Destina Pasta, since fate and destiny seem to have played a significant role in the founding of nella Pasta.
Nella Pasta can be found at several area retailers and farmers markets. Visit their website www.nellapasta.com for updated information.
WHERE’S THE WHEAT?
Wheat farming returns to New England at Four Star Farms
Wheat has been grown in Massachusetts since the Pilgrims planted seeds that they brought with them from England in 1621. It was then grown throughout New England through the end of 19th century. Several factors led to New England farmers abandoning wheat in favor of other crops. The Midwestern climate is dryer than New England’s and therefore better for growing grains: Wheat is prone to develop diseases if exposed to too much moisture. Once the Erie Canal was built, transportation costs dropped low enough that it became inexpensive to ship grains to New England, making it hard for local farmers to compete. Farmers here turned their attention to corn, which grows better in this climate and has a higher yield.
Recently, there has been renewed interest in wheat farming in New England. I spoke with Elizabeth Etoile of Four Star Farms in Northfield, Massachusetts, about her family’s wheat-growing business.
Is yours the only farm in the area that grows wheat currently?
There has been a resurgence of interest in growing grains in New England, due in part to the locavore movement. Several farms across the state have been growing plots of wheat on a small scale with varying degrees of success. However, I don’t believe that there are any other farms in Massachusetts currently growing and marketing wheat on the scale that we do (70+ acres) for human consumption.
What types of wheat do you grow?
We currently grow several varieties of grains that we sell either as the whole/hulled grain or in flour form: barley, buckwheat, spelt, triticale, corn and four types of wheat: two hard red winter wheats (bread flour), one soft red winter wheat (pastry flour) and one soft white winter wheat (pastry flour). hard wheats are useful as bread flour and soft wheats make good pastry flour. The designations “soft” and “hard” describe the qualities of the grains themselves and also describe the type of gluten they produce. Hard wheats are just that: very hard grains that, when milled into flour, have a stronger gluten strength (rising gluten) that is wonderful for baking things like loaves of bread. Soft wheats produce a softer gluten (spreading gluten) required for cakes, pastries, biscuits, etc. “Winter” refers to the growing season: We plant the winter wheat in the fall, the plant starts to grow and then becomes dormant in the winter months and resumes growth in the spring. Ths is helpful because it extends the growing season for farmers and the grains can outcompete spring weeds.
We currently market our flours as bread flours, pastry flours and specialty and offer them as either whole wheat/grain flour or bolted flour (sifted). We do not add anything to our flour products.
To purchase products from Four Star Farms, contact them directly at 413-498-2968 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find some of their products at City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain. to learn more, visit fourstarfarms.com.
Roz Cummins has a long-standing interest in sustainable farming, fishing and aquaculture. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, The Improper Bostonian, Martha Stewart Living, Country Journal, Grist.org and Culinate.com.