Edible histories: pasta

Categories: History of food

From Chinese poetry to Italian national pride, via Boccaccio’s cheese mountain and Eliza Acton’s curry pot noodle, Mark Riddaway on the fascinating story of pasta

You probably already know how pasta came to Italy. Marco Polo, the 13th century Venetian explorer, went to China and ate a big bowl of noodles, which blew his mind so thoroughly that on his return to Venice he set about convincing his fellow countrymen that he’d seen the future—and it was silky, slick and swimming in sauce. And that was that.

Or perhaps not. Like a big plate of freshly cooked gnocchi (a word for spherical pasta that long predates the use of potato in their construction), this widely-believed story is, of course, a load of steaming balls. A culture of pasta-making was embedded in Italy long before Marco Polo chomped on chow mein. It does, though, contain a kernel of truth: China, while a slow convert to the glutinous charms of wheat, began kneading, shaping and boiling wheat flour dough (the defining elements of pasta-making) long before macaroni became a regular part of the Italian diet.

Known generically as ‘bing’, pasta was being eaten in China by the turn of the third century, when several types, including ‘broth bing’ and ‘lace bing’, were included in a dictionary known as the Shiming. Around 100 years later, Shu Xi wrote Ode to Bing, a beautiful paean to pasta. His description of “dog tongues”, “piglet ears” and “dagger laces” foreshadowed the poetry of Italian pasta names, while his portrayal of the preparation of meat-filled parcels of dough, “soft as silk floss in the springtime”, bordered on pornographic: “The steam billows out into a swelling cloud. / The aroma flies into the air and flees into the distance, / Trailing away, making the loiterer’s mouth water.”

While the ancient Chinese salivated over delicate ravioli, Europeans remained blinkered to the possibilities of wheat, sticking resolutely to the two basic preparations that had sustained them for thousands of years: milling it, kneading it, then baking it into bread; or else throwing it into boiling liquid in rougher forms to create mushes or gruels. Pasta is a simple amalgamation of these methods—bread dough brought to life in boiling water or broth rather than the dry heat of an oven or hearth—so its late adoption says much about the religious and cultural weight of bread.

An Etruscan tomb
Some Italian patriots have argued that pasta was an archaic food of their homeland, citing as evidence an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, close to Rome, which contains within its remarkable stucco reliefs a depiction of a rolling pin, cutter and board—the basic tools needed to make pasta. But as these are also the basic tools required to make gingerbread men, and as there is absolutely no other supporting evidence for pasta being made at this time, this feels like a bit of a reach.

That’s not to say, though, that the seeds for pasta’s later success weren’t sown in the culinary culture of Italian antiquity. In ancient Rome, the word ‘laganum’ was used to describe a thin sheet of dough, but it seems that this was usually fried or baked rather than boiled. Apicius, a 1st century collection of Roman recipes, included a recipe for “an everyday dish”, in which minced sow’s udder, fish and chicken were mixed with eggs, broth and wine, then built up with layers of laganum. This could, depending on the nature of the dough and the moisture in the ragout, have been something not unlike a lasagne al forno. But equally, it could have been a meat pie.

It isn’t until 1154 that we find the first unequivocal evidence of pasta being made in Italy—in Sicily, to be exact. It came from the pen of the revered Arab geographer Muhammed al-Idrisi, who made his home at the cosmopolitan court of the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II.

Al-Idrisi wrote: “To the west of Termini there is a town called Trabia, an enchanting place to live, abounding in streams that drive numerous mills. Trabia sits in a vast plain with many great estates, where great quantities of ‘itriyya’ are made and exported everywhere, especially to Calabria and other Muslim and Christian lands; many shiploads are sent.”

Rabbinical discussions
So what was itriyya? The answer can be found on the other side of the Mediterranean. The Jerusalem Talmud, a compilation of rabbinical discussions collated in Israel between the 3rd and 5th centuries, contained a discussion of the ‘hallah’—the portion of dough that Jews were expected to give to the priests every time bread was made. The question was raised as to whether a type of dough described as ‘itrium’ was exempt, as this was cooked in a pan rather than baked—essentially, pasta.

The 9th-10th century Syriac-Arabic dictionary of Isho Bar Ali added clarity when it defined itriyya as string-like shapes of durum wheat dough. Other words emerged in the region to describe similar uses of dough: the Arabic ‘fidaws’ and ‘rishta’ (meaning ‘string’), and the Persian ‘laksha’.

Prior to the arrival of the Normans in 1061, Sicily had been a Muslim emirate, and the Arabs appear to have brought with them this nascent Levantine taste for pasta. And it was in Sicily that a great leap forward occurred. Most pasta is dried to a certain extent—a bit of air gives ‘fresh’ pasta its pleasing bite—but it was the Sicilians who learned to fully preserve it, taking advantage of the qualities of their most plentiful crop: Sicily had for centuries been producing some of the world’s best durum wheat.

Unlike soft wheat flour, durum wheat makes dough that can be thoroughly dried in warm sunshine, of which Sicily gets plenty. As does Sardinia, which followed its neighbour’s example: a trade in Sardinian pasta was well established by the end of the 14th century.

Superior Italian wheat
Spain, then a melting pot of cultures, was one of the lands to which this pasta was exported, and medieval Arab-Andalusian culinary treatises contained abundant references to dried pasta long before those of Italy. Spain would continue to import its pasta—a result of the superior quality of Italian wheat and the dynastic ties between Spain and southern Italy—but the two culinary cultures would slowly diverge. The Spanish still use pasta as the Arabs traditionally had: added late to one-pot dishes.

Whether a natural evolution from the laganum of the Romans or a borrowing from the itriyya of the Arabs—or most likely a bit of both—pasta had become a widespread Italian staple by the time Marco Polo left for China. Most of this pasta was fresh rather than dried, either made in domestic kitchens or produced by local artisans, who at first were often bakers of bread as well.

These were known as ‘lasagnari’, ‘vermicellari’ or ‘fidelari’, reflecting some of the many names for pasta that found favour: tria and fidej, derived from itriyya and fidaws; vermicelli, meaning ‘worms’—a word sufficiently commonplace by the 12th century that French and German Jews were referring to ‘vermishelsh’ and ‘vrimzlish’ respectively, while rehashing the hallah debate; maccheroni, which had a more generic meaning than it does now; lasagne, used to describe just about any kind of flat pasta; and gnocchi, meaning ‘knots’.  

Early Italian cookbooks often cite geography in their descriptions of pasta, suggesting that the strong regional identities that underpin today’s baffling diversity of names, shapes and rules have long roots. For example, the famous 15th century recipe book of Maestro Martino of Como included ‘maccaroni siciliani’, which used a length of stiff wire to create tubes, and ‘maccaroni romaneschi’—curled ribbons, not unlike tagliatelle—while Cristoforo di Messisbugo would the following century describe ‘maccheroni alla napoletana’ as thin strips, cut from a sheet.

A distinct course
Such recipe books, collated by the chefs of wealthy households, leave us with little sense of how simple, staple foods were eaten by the masses, but they do show that fresh pasta, made with eggs, was deemed a suitable food for the rich, despite its quotidian nature. During the 18th century, its place on the tables of the aristocracy began to find definition as a distinct course towards the start of the meal—‘il primo’—while for the less well-off it was a meal in its own right. For the truly poor, it remained out of reach—they largely ate cabbage.  

Even in recipes from fancy kitchens, pasta was often dressed with little more than cheese and butter. The near universal relationship between pasta and cheese is beautifully illustrated in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Completed around 1353, it included a tall tale about a district called Bengodi, which contained “a mountain all of grated parmesan cheese, whereon abode folk who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon broth, after which they threw them down thence”. Thomas More’s Utopia sounds a bit rubbish by comparison.

Until the 16th century, the art of commercial pasta-making was very much a manual one, requiring only rolling pins, drying racks and simple cutting tools like the ‘ferro da maccheroni’ (macaroni iron)—a metal roller with perpendicular grooves, used to cut strips from a sheet of dough. In the 16th century, an extrusion press known as the ‘ingegno per li maccheroni’ (macaroni engine), which forced dough through a die plate to create evenly shaped pasta, began to appear, as did mechanical brakes, used to speed up the arduous process of kneading dough.

It was during this transition to a more mechanised form of production that Naples became the unquestioned heartland of pasta production, with Genoa not far behind. Both enjoyed a coastal climate that made the tricky task of drying pasta at least vaguely reliable. Genoa also boasted sophisticated trading networks, while Naples had the advantage of being home to the very finest durum wheat—the ‘saragolla’ variety—and a population of enthusiastic pasta eaters, known mockingly as ‘mangiamaccaroni’ (macaroni eaters). Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries paint a vivid picture of Naples as a town filled with the booths of ‘maccaronari’, at which the locals ate pasta with their hands.

Butter and cheese
Pasta from Naples and Genoa first arrived in London in the 17th century. Surprisingly, though, the earliest English pasta recipes date from many centuries earlier. The Forme of Cury, collated around 1390, contains a recipe for ‘loseyns’, whose name and construction have much in common with lasagne, and another for ‘makerouns’, in which dough is cut “in pieces”, cast in boiled water, then covered with butter and cheese.

While it remained a marginal foodstuff, pasta would eventually penetrate our culinary culture. Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), made clear that dried Italian pasta of various shapes was widely available in the capital—Mr Cobbett’s on Pall Mall sold “all the Italian pastes extremely good”, but good-quality macaroni could be procured from “many other houses in London”.

She suggested that Naples macaroni be boiled for 45 minutes and Genoa macaroni—“less in size, but more substantial”—for “nearly or quite one hour”, which suggests the English were not yet fully on board with the concept of ‘al dente’. Her recipes included a Neapolitan beef and tomato ragout and an unctuous macaroni cheese. Her most fantastically British suggestion, though, was for ‘curried macaroni’: six ounces of cooked pasta dropped into a pint and a quarter of stock or gravy, flavoured with a tablespoon of curry powder—in essence, a curry-flavoured pot noodle.  

In Italy, the industrialisation of the 19th and 20th centuries had a huge impact on pasta. The duopoly of Naples and Genoa would be smashed by the development of industrial drying methods, which destroyed their climatic advantages, and the invention of ever-more powerful machines for kneading and shaping pasta dough. Pasta became much cheaper, making it accessible to the poor, whose forefathers had lived on leaves.

A coherent Italian identity
After the unification of Italy, food was essential to the forging of a coherent Italian identity, and the increasing universality of pasta made it a major source of national pride. In the 13th century, the poet Jacopone da Todi wrote: “He who looks at magnitude is often deceived; a peppercorn beats lasagne for virtue.” Now, in the eyes of most Italians, the virtue of pasta—alongside football and family—outstrips that of pretty much anything.