Durum is a unique species of wheat, the hardest of all the species we eat (up to 17% protein). The word itself means “hard” in Latin, and in fact not only is it chock full of protein (gluten), the character of that protein is extremely firm. No wonder, then, that it’s so good for making things like pasta (but it’s also terrific in rustic breads, flat breads and pizza crusts).
While durum is virtually synonymous with central and southern Italy, it wasn’t the Romans who brought the crop to the Mediterranean. Rather it was Islamic conquerors (who owned pretty much everything east of Constantinople and up into Spain starting in about the 8th century). They were well acquainted with durum, having grown quite a bit of it in the Near East. And while Italy itself was never occupied by Islamic forces, durum soon spread there since it grew so well under hot, semi-arid conditions. To this day, durum is a major crop in Italy, though we grow quite a bit here in the US as well.
Most people know durum under it alternate name semolina, which isn’t the name of a grain but a grind. Semolina is most often a coarse grind of durum, though semolina (essentially “small bits”) can also be made from softer types of wheat, in which case it’s known as farina (or Cream of Wheat, for all you hot cereal lovers out there).
In this coarse form, durum semolina is used for everything from pasta to couscous, tabbouleh, kibbe, bulgur, injera, and as an ingredient all sorts of gruels, soups and stews. And in fact that’s what most of the global durum crop is used for. Comparatively little of it is ground into flour, which is why proper durum flour can be difficult to find. When buying durum, look for the words “extra fancy” which denote that it’s fine enough for use in bread and pizza doughs.