Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre

Other Wheat Products

"B ESIDES the best of bread, we are indebted to wheat for macaroni, vermicelli, and other similar products manufactured chiefly in Italy."

"Vermicelli is in the shape of long worms," observed Jules.

"Yes, it is precisely from its resemblance to a mass of long worms that it gets its name of vermicelli, which means 'little worms.' "

"And macaroni," Marie put in, "which makes just as good a dish, seasoned with cheese, is in the shape of long, slender tubes."

"Besides these two," Claire hastened to add, "there are any number of other shapes—stars, circles, ovals, hearts. I have even seen the letters of the alphabet; the first time I noticed them I was surprised to find every one of the letters in a single spoonful of soup. It must take a long time to cut the dough into all those little pieces, all so beautifully shaped."

"No time at all, my dear," Uncle Paul assured her. "In a twinkling, by means of machinery, there is turned out any quantity of those beautiful shapes you admire so much. Let us talk a little about how they are made.

"As you now know, the most nutritive part of wheat is the gluten, which may be compared, in respect to nourishment, with meat itself. Therefore in these Italian products wheats having the highest percentage of gluten are used. They come from hot countries, notably from Sicily, Africa, and Asia. In making the dough very little water is used, in order to get a firm dough; and to improve its taste and color it is customary to add a little salt and saffron. This dough is put into a metal case, the bottom of which is pierced with a number of holes, some round, some ring-shaped, some representing stars, some formed like hearts, flowers, letters of the alphabet, etc.—in fact, any shape desired. The dough is pressed through these openings and thus made to take the various forms I have mentioned. If the bottom is merely pierced with small round holes, the dough will come out of the case in long round threads as vermicelli."

"Why, that's as easy as saying good morning!" cried Claire.

"If the bottom is pierced with ring-shaped openings, the result will be of a larger size and known as macaroni."

"But I see one difficulty, Uncle Paul," objected Marie. "The openings in the bottom cannot be perfect rings, for then the piece in the middle would have nothing to hold it."

"Very true. Accordingly the ring-like openings are not complete, and the macaroni comes through split all down its length. But the two edges of the fresh dough unite as soon as the opening is passed, stick together, and the wall of the tube is without a break.

"Lastly, if the openings are in the shape of narrow slits, what comes through will take the form of thin ribbons or thongs."

"With openings shaped like stars," said Claire, "the dough pressed through will be in long grooved strings; but there won't be any stars such as we have in soup."

"To obtain these stars and other similar products, there is placed, a little to one side and under the case, a broad circular blade having a keen edge and revolving rapidly. At very short intervals it severs the strings of dough as they come out of their molds. Each of these segments is a star, oval, crescent, flower, or letter, according to the shape of the orifice that molds the string."

"Now I understand," Claire rejoined. "A big knife goes backward and forward at the mouth of the mold, and there falls from the bottom of the case a shower of stars coming from the strings of dough which the knife cuts off very short. That is the way I get those little rounds of carrot that have such a beautiful yellow color they remind me of gold coins. You told us that the dough for making all these things is colored with a little saffron. I don't know what that is."

"Saffron is a plant cultivated in some of our departments, especially around Angoulême and Nemours. It yields a magnificent orange-yellow color, contained in three long and slender threads found in the very center of the flower. The flowers are gathered as fast as they open, but only these three thin threads are kept. The harvest is limited to this small part of the flower, so I leave you to imagine how many blossoms it takes to furnish a little of this coloring matter. These tiny threads, dried in the sun and reduced to powder, constitute the coloring-matter with which a beautiful yellow tint is given to dough for macaroni and similar products, so also to cakes, butter, and cream. Furthermore, saffron is sometimes used, in very small quantities, as a seasoning."



"Besides all these things you have been telling us about," said Marie, "we often have groats in our soup, and groats I take to be nothing but wheat grains without the bran."

"Since wheat, the richest in gluten of all the cereals, furnishes us macaroni and vermicelli and other similar food products, it is clear that it can itself serve as food without being first reduced to flour and then made into dough. We have simply to remove its outside covering by running it between two millstones only the thickness of a grain apart. The two stones, not being close enough together to crush the wheat and reduce it to flour, merely take away the coarse outside skin, that is to say the bran. The result of this operation is called groats, which we may regard as a sort of natural macaroni or vermicelli obtained at little cost with a few turns of the mill-wheel.

"Oats and barley also furnish groats. What is called pearl barley is barley groats rounded under the millstone in the form of little globules. Lastly, semolina is groats reduced to very small grains. In a word, it is wheat half ground and hence in particles coarser than ordinary flour. Another kind of semolina is made of dough such as is used for vermicelli: the dough is chopped up into a sort of fine sand instead of being molded in long strings."