Pasta di Gragnano, also known as ‘oro di Gragnano’ or ‘white gold’, is a culinary tour de force. We find out what has earned it this enviable reputation.

The unassuming appearance of Gragnano, a hilltop town that nestles between the jagged Monti Lattari and resplendent Amalfi Coast, belies its legendary status in the world of food.

While Northern Italy is famous for fresh pasta like tortellini and tagliatelle, Southern Italy is renowned for its dried pasta, with the Sorrentine town of Gragnano the undisputed production capital or ‘Città della Pasta’.

Geography and climate play a large part in Gragnano’s unique pasta making tradition, which stretches back more than four centuries.

There is a sea breeze that blows inland from the Gulf of Naples, bringing humidity and minerals from the sea into the streets of Gragnano. This warm wind creates the perfect conditions for drying pasta, and until the beginning of the 19th Century, Gragnano’s pasta makers dried their pasta outdoors. The main street, via Roma, was designed and built as a gigantic natural drying rack: exposed to sunlight and oriented to capture the wind.

The town is also blessed with a ready supply of clear, fresh spring water, which runs down from the mountains and has a low calcium content for a pure, clean taste.

High protein durum wheat, which keeps the pasta al dente as it cooks, has been grown and milled in the area even longer than pasta has been made there.

These elements combine to create the ideal conditions for producing and drying this distinctive pasta.

The extrusion technique deployed by Gragnano’s artisans also sets this pasta apart. The dough is pushed through bronze dies, which gives it a rough texture that absorbs sauces and flavours when it is cooked. In high volume pasta production, teflon coated dies are used, resulting in a smoother texture.

Today, even though drying takes place in ovens, it closely emulates the street-drying of yesteryear to maintain the quality and flavours of the wheat.

The pasta is dried very slowly for up to 48 hours at a very low temperature. This results in the whitish pale yellow colour that earned Pasta di Gragnano its ‘white gold’ nickname. As well as preserving the natural colour of the wheat, this slow drying process maintains the flavour and nutritional qualities of the wheat. This is why mass-produced pasta has a much darker yellow colour, blander taste and lower protein content; it is dried quickly at a high temperature that burns off the sugar and protein.

In 2013 Pasta di Gragnano was awarded PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status by the European Union, acknowledging the qualities that make this pasta special. To carry this prestigious marque, Gragnano pasta makers must meet certain rigorous criteria: they must use Italian durum wheat semolina and water from local springs, extrude through bronze moulds and dry the pasta at between 40 and 80°C.

Almost 15% of the pasta exported from Italy each year is made in Gragnano and this historical product is still central to the town’s economy.