Pasta, like people, comes in all shapes and sizes. Some 450 shapes are said to exist in Italy, where the average person consumes 26kg a year. In the UK, caterers now use as many as 100 varieties to satisfy the public's appetite for 2kg of pasta per person per year.
Although all pasta is principally the same - dough made from a combination of durum wheat, eggs and water - it is the shapes into which it is made that are important when cooking.
For example, pasta experts recommend that, with richer cheese or cream sauces, heavier pastas such as tagliatelle, fettuccine and spaghetti should be used. The open, thicker shapes of penne, orecchietti and zite are good for meat sauces or ragu because they trap the sauce. For shellfish sauces, spaghettini, bucatini and linguine are best because of their lighter make-up.
Chefs will also often choose a particular shape of pasta for aesthetic reasons. iB Food, formerly Italbrokers, currently finds that the best seller in its range of 30 shapes of pasta is rocchetti, so called because it resembles a spool of cotton.
Managing director Giuseppe Tranchina believes the shape is particularly popular because it is novel. "It is unusual to see a round, and they[chefs and caterers] like to have something different on the plate," he says. "It also holds the sauce very well."
He adds that fashion in shapes is important in the pasta market. "Customers want new shapes and they constantly want a change," he says.
The importance of attractive shapes is confirmed by Clare Todd, product brand manager with Knorr Pasta. She says that the company's present range of 32 shapes will continue to grow to maintain innovation "in a constantly changing marketplace".
The extent of the role played by pasta shapes and colours on the plate is summed up by Tranchina, who points out that iB Food's green, orange and cream multi-coloured pasta fusilli does not taste of any particular flavourings. Todd likewise says that Knorr's conchiglie tricolore "has no emphasis on flavour".
Market research company Mintel has found that alternative pasta shapes have overtaken spaghetti as the most popular form of dried pasta, making up 46% of volume sales in 1995.
Fresh or dried
Aside from its shape, chefs are also influenced by whether pasta is fresh or dried. It is a general misconception that fresh pasta is better, as the quality of the product can vary considerably, depending on how the pasta is made. Fresh pasta can also present problems in consistency and can be soggy, while the dried variety can handle a heavier sauce.
The AA's chief hotel inspector, David Young, is not convinced that fresh pasta is better than dried, particularly for dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese. "Fresh pasta tends to lose a bit of bite," he says, "and bite is important in a dish like this."
Obviously, in the food service industry, where cost is an important factor, it is not surprising that the most common mass-produced forms of pasta - dried spaghetti and lasagne - together account for 35% of the market. Macaroni, in third place, holds a 15% market share.
The canned pasta sector is seen as the least dynamic area of the market because, researchers at Mintel found, it grew by only 11% between 1991 and 1995, to £99m. But the product is still important in cafés, pubs and schools, especially for serving to children. For canned products, dried pasta must be used, mainly because of the cooking process.
Cooked in the can
Ashley Pinder, operator sector manager at HL Foodservice, says that the company's dry durum wheat pasta, imported from Italy, is used for tinning purposes because the fresh variety would break up in the cooking process. "The pasta goes into the cans uncooked, along with the sauce, and it is all cooked in the tin," he says, "so fresh wouldn't be good to use."
It is not just the food service sector that recognises the benefits of dried pasta. Franco Taruschio, chef-proprietor of the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, Wales, buys tubular dried pasta from Danmar International, based in Egham, Surrey. He says that he buys this shape because it is difficult to make on the premises. He also adds that storing a couple of different types of dried pasta made without eggs can help get chefs out of the predicament of cooking for vegans.
Most chefs would, no doubt, agree with Taruschio's claim that it is not the fact that the pasta is dried but how it is dried that affects its quality. Because of the rapid turnover of business, large commercial companies have to steam-dry their pasta rather than let it dry naturally, which takes as long as 12 hours. However, this results in the product being partially cooked, but still raw in the centre. Companies such as Danmar International thus only buy from artisan producers which dry the pasta over racks.
Freshly made pasta is, meanwhile, something of a luxury and tends to find a home predominantly in upmarket restaurants with the time and manpower to make it. UK chefs tend to use machines that extrude pasta through dies. This gives a somewhat rough texture to the pasta, compared with the smooth consistency produced when it is rolled by hand (a far more time-consuming process). But the use of these machines gives the nearest result that restaurants can achieve to genuine Italian pasta.
Whether or not customers can tell the difference between dried and fresh pasta depends on how refined their palates are and whether they have been eating it all their lives. However, Mary Contini, a director of the family-owned Valvona & Crolla Caffé Bar in Edinburgh, believes that everybody has some instinct about food, and can tell good from bad. She is saddened by the rise of preprepared meals, saying that some of them let traditional pasta down because they contain too much sugar and dried herbs.
The preprepared pasta market is nevertheless thriving - Mintel labels it the largest sector, with 46% of sales in 1995, or £241m of business.
Mintel predicts that the pasta market will continue to experience rapid growth, so it seems likely that more shapes will be invented and the quality of pasta is likely to improve - in all its many forms.