A Brief History Of Pasta

How two ingredients combined to become a national treasure.

Photo edited from: ‘Napoli MANGIAMACCHERONI ~ 1900’, Morton1905, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How two simple ingredients combined to create pasta, a national treasure

Pasta. The word alone fills the mind with mouthwatering fantasies. Anyone who has had the pleasure of savoring a real, authentic, no-nonsense plate of this tricolored delight will know of what I speak. The glorious creation that arises out of the harmonious union of wheat flower and water — or eggs. Travelers, writers, cooks and poets the world over have sung hymns in its honour over the centuries. Its origins are violently disputed by culinary historians almost to the extent that the socratic question is among classicists. Was it born in China and later brought to Italy via the silk road, or did it evolve independently and in parallel to its grand eastern rival — the rice noodle? We shall briefly explore the history and development of pasta in Italy.

Popular legend has it the the great 14th century Venetian traveler Marco Polo discovered pasta during his travels throughout China, where a noodle-like food has existed since 3000 BC. This myth probably arose out of a misinterpretation of a famous passage in Polo’s Travels. In it, Polo mentions a tree from which something like pasta was made. It was probably the sago palm, which produces a starchy food that resembles, but is not pasta. Jane Grigson, the English cookery writer, suggested that the story originated during the 1920s or 30s in an advertisement for a Canadian spaghetti company.

We know that references to a pasta-like pittance can be traced far back to the 1st century AD. Horace, the leading Roman poet during the reign of Augustus, mentions in his writings something called lagana, which were fine sheets of fried dough. The Greek rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides a recipe for lagana which he attributes to the 1st century Crysippus of Tyana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavoured with spices and deep fried in olive or sunflower oil. An early 5th century cookbook describes a dish called lagana that consisted of layers of dough with meat stuffing, an ancestor of modern-day lasagna.

Historians have noted several lexical milestones relevant to pasta, none of which change these basic characteristics. The works of the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen mention a certain itrion, a homogeneous compounds made of flour and water. The Jerusalem Talmud records that itrium, a kind of boiled dough, was common in Palestine from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD. A dictionary compiled by the 9th century Arab physician and lexicographer Isho bar Ali defines itriyya, the Arabic cognate, as string-like shapes made of semolina flour which were dried before cooking. The geographical text of Muhammad al-Idrisi, compiled in 1154 for the King of Sicily Roger II, mentions that itriyya was manufactured and exported from Norman Sicily:

West of Termini there is a delightful settlement called Trabia. Its ever-flowing streams propel a number of mills. Here there are huge buildings in the countryside where they make vast quantities of itriyya which is exported everywhere: to Calabria, to Muslim and Christian countries. Very many shiploads are sent.

Sicily may well have been the origin of a North African cousin of pasta known as couscous: small droplets of durum semolina dough which are steamed and usually served with a meat stew or vegetables and sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon or sugar.

Food historians estimate that the dish probably took hold in Italy as a result of extensive Mediterranean trading during the Middle Ages. From the 13th century, references to pasta dishes such as macaroni, ravioli, gnocchi and vermicelli — crop up with increasing frequency across the Italian peninsula. In the 14th-century, Boccaccio, in his Decameron, the collection of tales that inspired Geoffrey Chaucer, tells the story of pasta chefs rolling steaming hot macaroni and ravioli down a mountain of Parmesan cheese to gluttonous sinners waiting below. A mouthwatering fantasy if there ever was one.

Throughout the Middle Ages, until the start of the 16th century, pasta dishes were very different from those eaten today. Not only was pasta cooked for longer, but it was also combined with sweet and spicy flavours that today would seem bizarre. By the late 17th century, Naples was becoming the European hub of pasta production and consumption. Neapolitans had been nicknamed leaf-eaters — mangiafoglia — in the 1500s. From the 1700s they started to be called macaroni-eaters, or mangiamaccheroni. Several explanations have been put forward for this.

One is the deterioration in the standard of living among the common folk, which significantly limited their access to meat, while large landowners in the Kingdom of Naples or Sicily sold wheat relatively cheaply. Religious restrictions also had an influence on the changing diet: pasta was an ideal food for days when eating meat was forbidden. But perhaps the main reason for pasta’s dramatic spread was that, from the 17th century, industrial pasta production started to develop with the use of machines such as the torchio, a mechanical press to make noodles or vermicelli.

In 1740, a license for the first pasta factory was issued in Venice. During the 1800s, water mills and stone grinders were used to separate semolina from the bran, thereby provoking an expansion of the pasta market that coincided with the Industrial Revolution. This is the period known as ‘The Industry of Pasta’. In 1859, Joseph Topits founded the first pasta factory that worked with steam machines in the city of Pest, Hungary — one of the first factories of  this kind in Central Europe. By 1867, the Buitoni Company in Sansepolcro, Tuscany, became an established pasta manufacturer. During the early 1900s, artificial drying and extrusion processes enabled a larger variety of pasta preparation and greater export. In 1884, the Zátka Brothers’s plant in Boršov nad Vltavou was founded, and this was the first pasta factory in Bohemia. 

The final chapter in the history of pasta making opens in 1877, in a small bakery in the city of Parma run by a man named Pietro Barilla. In this small town the seed of what would become the largest and most famous pasta company in the world was planted. The rest, as they say, is history.

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