The history of pasta

The history of pasta

By
Antonio Carluccio
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849493703
Photographer
Laura Edwards

Many diverse ethnicities have contributed to the creation of what we now call pasta. The concept is not exclusively Italian, nor Chinese, Etruscan, Ancient Greek or Roman. Many think the original inspiration was Arab, but no one really knows. The subject is a complete minefield, and the origins of pasta are as tangled and slippery as a bowl of cooked spaghetti!

‘Pasta’ is the term applied to foods made from an unleavened dough of grain flour and water. Chinese and Japanese noodles are made from combinations of liquid and various ground grains, seeds and even a root, and they have been in existence for thousands of years. But can they be called pasta? Similarly, can the unleavened doughs which form the wrapping of dumplings in Russian and Slav – not to mention Chinese – cuisines be thought of as pasta? The flour and water mix may not have originated in Italy, but the use of the Italian word ‘pasta’ – or ‘maccaruni’ as it was often called in early texts – conjures up the image of a uniquely Italian product, which is cooked by boiling in water, then sauced.

Even if the Chinese were the first civilisation to make a version of pasta, it is not true that the Venetian traveller Marco Polo brought the idea back to Italy from China in the late 13th century. For a start, the soft noodles he encountered in China were made from sago, breadfruit or millet pastes – not the wheat paste which is now acknowledged to be the basis for pasta – and his writings reveal that he already knew of the existence in Italy of wheat-based pastas such as vermicelli and lasagne, most of them known by the generic name of ‘maccaruni’.

The Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilisation in the Italian peninsula, are thought to have been one of the first to make pasta. Reliefs in the Tomba Bella in Cerveteri illustrate what look like a pasta board, a rolling pin and a pasta wheel. But this proves nothing, and texts at this date suggest that any alimentary paste was more likely to have been baked than boiled. The same is true of many Ancient Greek and Roman equivalents. For instance, Aristophanes mentions laganon, a flattened dough, in his 5th-century BC comedy Lysistrata; this was similar to the laganum or lagane of the Romans, and both seem to have been baked as a type of bread. (‘Lasagne’ is thought to derive from these words, so there could be at least a linguistic connection.) But it is often unclear whether bread, biscuits, pastry or pasta is being talked about in many of the ancient textual sources, for many simple flatbreads and biscuits – including the famous hardtack – are a basic combination of flour and water.

In the 1st century BC, the Roman poet Horace wrote in his Sermones about going home to have a meal of porri et ciceris laganique catinum, a bowl of leeks, chickpeas and laganum. This suggests vegetables mixed or cooked with something like pasta, and to this day in Puglia, ciceri e tria, a soup of chickpeas and pasta, is still served. In this dish, some of the pasta, usually tagliatelle, is cooked in the soup, while occasionally some is also deep-fried until crisp.

This crispness might give more satisfaction in terms of texture in the mouth, and in fact I think that this idea may contribute to the origins of the modern pasta term al dente – an explanation for which I have been seeking all my pasta-researching and pasta-eating life! In the beginning, pasta was a food for the Roman nobles. Gradually, over the centuries, it became a food for the poor, who cooked it ‘to the tooth’ so that its texture could more closely emulate that of the meat they could not afford.

The word ‘tria’ in the ciceri e tria previously mentioned comes from the Arabic for noodles, itriyah. Interestingly, in Morocco sheets of an unleavened dough are used to make a layered pie similar to lasagne, called trid (once the favourite food of the Prophet Mohammed). This to me would seem to confirm the Arabic influence on the origins of pasta in Italy. The Arabs conquered Sicily in the 10th century AD, and texts thereafter talk of a form of pasta that was dried. A 12th-century Arab geographer, Al-Idrisi, recorded that semolina in strands was common in Sicily. (Sicily had an ideal climate for the production of durum or semolina wheat, and for drying the pasta made from it.)

In many regions pasta gradually became a vital staple for feeding hungry families: it was filling, it was cheap, and could be sauced by vegetables, not just with expensive meat. In fact, very quickly it became an accepted dish for the whole of Italian society, exemplified by the number of attempts to industrialise pasta-making. No less a genius than Leonardo da Vinci tried to do this: his Codex Atlanticus, a collection of drawings and writings from the late 15th century, has sketches in it by the master for a lasagne-making machine (it didn’t work!).

By the end of the 16th century, written distinctions were being made between maccaruni and vermicelli, and by the beginning of the 17th century a ngegno da maccaruni had appeared that could push hard dough through a die, making maccaruni with a hole in the centre. In the early 19th century, the Buitoni family opened the first mechanical pasta factory in Italy (and the world): many of the processes were still quite primitive, with workmen apparently kneading the dough with their feet!

One of the principal qualities contributing to pasta’s longevity in culinary popularity was, of course, its ability to last well. Because fresh pasta could be dried, it had a long shelf life, and could and did spread throughout the whole of the rest of Italy and the Mediterranean basin, and all points north and south. Its durability also meant that it was able to be taken on long sea voyages, so it could be claimed that the dried pasta of Italy might have enabled the discovery of the New World.

In the United States, pasta became one of the nation’s favourite foods. Thomas Jefferson did not introduce pasta to the US – a pasta myth like that of Marco Polo – but he was interested enough to ask for a mould for making maccheroni (macaroni) to be sent to him, and shipped in two cases of pasta in 1789. Pasta was soon being manufactured in the States, and new dishes invented: spaghetti and meatballs is something we did not know in Italy. The horror that is canned pasta was invented in America – possibly how many Britons were also introduced to pasta, in the form of the infamous canned spaghetti in tomato sauce. And to this day I think the Americans cook pasta for too long, until it is well beyond al dente (and indeed some US manufacturers do not use durum wheat semolina, which means the pasta will be fairly soft to start with). Possibly introduced originally by the British, but treated in the States almost as a national dish, macaroni cheese apparently was what most Americans cooked after the horrific events of 9/11, 2001, the ultimate comfort food.

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again