Oct 20, 2009

Last posting, I introduced an ongoing culinary series exploring the origins of much of the food we take for granted, but rarely experience in its true artisan form. I mentioned pasta and threatened semolina. In the pattern of beginnings, I’ll be focusing on semolina this post, for it is the starting point of one of the world’s favorite foods: Pasta.

The thought of semolina makes me shudder. You see when I was a bachgen (little boy) in Wales, our school lunch program would inflict semolina on us in the worst possible way: a lukewarm slimy off-white pudding, with a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle. What culinary genius came up with this dish for us I know not? I do know I was too scared to say no to the, “Dinner Lady.” Now there were many little boys who delighted in mixing the jam into the semolina and making a ‘bloody’ mess (literally). This little boy would eat the jam, carefully avoiding any contact with the semolina pudding. Both scenarios had the same result: waste of money, poor nutrition, and an appalling lifelong association for semolina with inedible foods.

Many decades and thousands of miles distant, I was delighted to discover a much better purpose for semolina, and here our journey stops at a more edible destination: Pasta.

To understand semolina is to understand the process from which wheat is turned into flour since semolina is really a stage in the process called, “Milling.” Semolina is a milled, coarse mix made from hard winter durum wheat. The mix is ground to make flour from which pasta is made. Semolina is also used to make couscous, bread, and, unfortunately for many schoolchildren in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s, puddings! Now if we’d only followed the Greeks and made their delicious Galaktoboureko semolina dessert, I would have been one happier (and rounder) bachgen!

So, how is semolina produced? These days, wheat is milled into flour using grooved steel rollers. The grains of wheat are slightly wider than the spaces between the rollers. As a result, the rollers slough off the bran and the germ from the wheat kernel. The wheat bran is the hard outer layer of the wheat grain. Wheat germ is the reproductive part of the grain that germinates to grow into a plant. The bran and the germ are integral parts of whole grains, and is a by-product in the milling of refined grains. Removing the wheat and the bran for a lower nutritional profile since the bran in particular is rich in dietary fiber, omegas, starch, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Bran is present in any grain and can be milled for example, from rice, corn, maize, oats, barley, and millet, in addition to wheat. Bran has a high oil content, which turns rancid easily. For this reason I keep bran in the freezer. Remember the saying, “Separating the wheat from the chaff?” Wheat bran is not chaff, for the chaff is the coarser scaly material surrounding the grain, but not part of the grain.

Once the bran and germ have been removed from the wheat, the remaining part of the grain is the starchy endosperm, which is cracked in the process. This coarse, cracked endosperm is semolina.

The semolina is then ground into flour, from which pasta is made. The same process is used for any type of flour. The endosperm can be broken into different grades, since the inner part breaks into smaller pieces than the outer. This difference allows for differing grades of flour to be produced.

Semolina has an interesting lingual origin, deriving from the Italian word, Semola – a derivative of the Ancient Latin Simila, which means flour. It does not end here. The Latin is actually from the Semitic root Smd, meaning to grind into groats. Semolina is only ever made from durum wheat and should be a dull yellow color. When flour comes from softer wheat, it is white and is not semolina. Huh? Herein lies the confusion with semolina! Is it flour, or a grain? Actually, as we’ve seen above, it is neither, since technically, Semolina is a stage in the milling process, turning whole grain wheat into flour.

So recap, why would we eat pasta if it not whole grain wheat in origin? Ah, for that you’ll just have to tune in for a future posting. Got to go, I’m hungry!


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