August 19, 2011 10:07 pm
The pasta equation
By George L. Legendre. Photographs by Stefano Graziani
Left: Galletti, use in tomato sauces. Right: Fusilli Lunghi Bucati, eat with meat ragu
The architect Marco Guarnieri and I share a professional address in a quiet lane off Bermondsey Street in south London. On most evenings we mill about the office’s communal table and exchange our impressions of the day’s crop of problems: delayed professional fees, contractual instructions and interim certificates. But first we sit down and eat pasta.
Being Italian, Marco knows all about pasta. It takes him around eight minutes to prepare the simplest of pastasciuttas – a dish of spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino. Sadly, it takes us no more than a few minutes to finish our portions.
During one of these evenings, the concept for a book about pasta emerged. Its premise is simple: to work out the mathematical formulas of pasta and use the results to produce a culinary resource that is both beautiful and useful. My firm uses mathematics to model anything from pedestrian bridges to playground slides, so why not food too?
There is a huge canon of pasta, and often names or forms overlap, or become confused. Many regions in Italy produce lesser-known varieties of pasta, or spawn minor variations of established ones, then give them local names. This all makes classification a difficult task. Inspired by the science of phylogeny (the study of relatedness among groups of natural forms), we pared down the startling variety of pasta to 92 unique types, divided according to their morphological features, with each pasta illustrated by its parametric equations, a 3D diagram and a specially commissioned photograph by Stefano Graziani.
Left: Funghini, good in minestrone. Right: Fagottini, fill with ricotta or fruit
In the examples above, you can see the complexity of galletti, combining a bent longitudinal profile, a hollow cross section, striated surface and smooth edges; fusilli lunghi bucati, a distinctive member of the fusilli clan with a spring-like profile; funghini, with their dainty crenellated edges; and fagottini, pinched into shape from a circle of durum-wheat dough.
Combined, these representations capture the essence of each pasta, and give a concise, elegant and unique expression of a familiar thing. It is a surreal presentation of a wildly popular food, perhaps sometimes overlooked for its aesthetic depth and variety.
And does this scientific approach result in tastier pasta? Absolutely. The topological properties of each shape impacts how it absorbs heat and water, cooks, soaks in liquids, and retains a sauce – a shape may even be designed for a given sauce.
Our next project, to make a pasta derived from periodic equations, pasta ioli, is still a work in progress. But the pasta family, in all its shapes and sizes, is bound to keep growing.
‘Pasta by Design’ by George L. Legendre is published this month by Thames & Hudson, £16.95
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.