For such a crucial component in so many classic dishes, pasta hasn’t really been considered a food that should have some craft and intentionality behind its flavor. It’s the texture that matters. It’s the base of the dish. A vehicle for flavor.
Carla Leonardi of Cafe Lago wants to change that. Her first move toward pasta 2.0 has already begun. Right now on the menu you can find pasta made from Edison flour, sourced in the Pacific Northwest. Edison is a hard wheat, planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Its profile Carla describes as a sweet, buttery flavor, with a firm bite and a soft yellow-brown color.
Wheat bred for flavor has been on Leonardi’s mind since she started Café Lago back in 1990. She uses the example of a loaf of bread made with levain in a wood fire oven. Dip that nice, caramelized crust into a bowl of tomato sauce and it tastes so much fuller than dipping a slice of white bread into the same sauce. While pasta is subtler than bread, the same theory applies.
According to Leonardi, before wheat production was homogenized and standardized for yield by big farms, people had a more discerning palate for different pasta flavors.
“I like to think that pre-1950s, before all wheat started to taste the same, people could tell the different between wheat grown in Maine from wheat grown in Oregon.”
She tried various pasta made from Italian heirloom varieties of wheat, such as Latini pasta, which she calls “the best dry pasta you’ve ever tasted”. But it's too expensive to import. Then she attended a talk by Profesor Steven Jones of Washington State University’s “bread lab,” part of the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resources.
“When I listened to Dr Jones talk about his mission to breed wheat for flavor as well as yield, and wheat that is specifically bred to do well in the place where it is grown, it reignited an interest that I’ve had for 25 years.”
It was Professor Jones who encouraged her to try Edison. So far this wheat has been used mostly in the restaurant's ravioli and pappardelle dishes. Lago plans to incorporate it elsewhere on the menu once there's more available, but as of now Edison flour is a seasonal offering.
There are other benefits as well, such supporting local farmers, in this came Camas Country Mills outside of Eugene Oregon, and being able to promise local, non-GMO products—all buzz words people love and have come to expect from quality ingredients...except for pasta.
The response has been unmistakable, if a little surprising. Before Cafe Lago spelled out its flour change on the menu, people would comment, unsolicited, on how good the pasta tasted. But once the pasta as “whole wheat,” the sales plummeted. Whole wheat often means the less tasty, healthy alternative, after all.
But Leonardi thinks it’s just an issue of branding. As Cafe Lago begins incorporating Edison and other locally sourced flour into more and more dishes, she’s confident her guests won’t want to go back to bland.