Pasta, the staple of Italian cuisine and a crucial component of the traditional Mediterranean diet, is beloved worldwide. Every country has their own version of this simple but delicious dough, with over 1500 different shapes to choose from. But what do we actually know about it’s history? In the UK and want pasta delivered to your doorstep? Check out gigispasta.com.
The word “pasta”, meaning “paste” in Italian, is derived from the Greek παστά pasta or pastos, originally appearing in forms like a rudimentary salted barley porridge. Pasta’s humble beginnings can be traced back as early as the first century, often depicted as “an Etrusco-Roman noodle […] made from durum wheat […] called ‘lagane’,” (Berney, rarehistoricalphotos.com) which was fried, not boiled or baked. From ingredients to cooking methods, it does not bare much resemblance to the product we eat today.
Although it is not known exactly who invented pasta, it is generally accepted that it was introduced to Italy by Arab colonists, who used dry pasta for long journeys and military campaigns. In fact, the first reference to pasta was in 1154, by an Abrab geographer by the name of Sherif al Idrisi (hired by King Roger II of Sicily). This described a factory on the island of Sicily, just off the mainland of Italy, in the small coastal town of Trabia. Idrisi reported that the Trabian people were making a string-like pasta he called itryah, the Persian word for ‘string’. Itryah, later described as spago (string) or spaghetti, was made from strands of African-style wheat and water, and exported across Italy.
Yet, there has been some dispute about it’s origins. Some believe that it was primarily crafted by Etruscans, having featured pasta recipes in the 13th Century recipe book “De re coquinaria” by Marcus Apicius, a Roman nobleman. The manuscript for this book was lost over time, but was roughly recreated from Apicius’ notes during the Middle Ages. However, the most notable concept surfaced in 2005, when a 4,000 year-old bowl of noodles, made from millet, was discovered in China. Many theorists state that pasta hails from the Chinese Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BC), claiming that the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324 BC) brought it to Italy in the 13th Century. This theory is largely based on a misinterpretation of a passage from Polo’s book, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, as pasta was likely confused with a noodle-style product made from the flour of the breadfruit tree. This theory has been largely debunked over the years.
Following the popularisation of dry pasta in the 13th Century, it became a favourite amongst sailors and gradually gained favour in the home by the 17th Century, as until this point it had been considered an expensive process. This was due to the fact that it was easy to make with only two necessary ingredients, had a long shelf life and could be kept for months, to years. Made by mixing flour and water or eggs, the pasta would be kneaded, flattened and sliced using a chitarra. A wooden device with many rows of wires, the pasta sheet would be draped over the chitarra, then a rolling pin would be evened across, cutting the sheet into strips to be eaten fresh. Otherwise, the pasta would be dried on a rack, for cooking at a later time. Many cooks would practice the skill of rolling the pasta into shapes, such as the increasingly popular macaroni. Pope Benedict XII even set strict standards for pasta!
The recipe for the pasta we have come to know and love has been popping up in recipe books since the 14th century. Many medieval recipes contain a form of pasta, such as the French dish ‘Lasanis’, a lasagna-like recipe of layered fermented dough and cheese, along with spices, baked in a casserole dish. As well as ‘Rabiolin’, a ravioli dish made from a flour-egg dough, spinach and cheese, or meat, which was boiled. Pasta in this time was typically eaten al dente, which when literally translated from Italian means “to the tooth”. In terms of texture, this would be firm and chewy.
When pasta-eating began to take hold during the Renaissance, pasta-makers formed a guild named the Vermicellai, tasked with preventing competition with the general public for market space. This resulted in the Pope interfering, to decree that pasta should only be made by the Vermicellai. Any illegal pasta-making was punishable by law until 1641, when it was overturned under the premise that there must be at least 25 feet between each pasta shop.
After the law was overturned, pasta production was somewhat commercialised by the 14th Century, in a lengthy process from foot-kneading to being forced through a bronze die. This would then be pushed through a screw-press and dried. This enabled easy distribution and dry pasta became commonly available to all, which took away its previous status. So, in the 16th Century, fresh pasta had become the dish of choice for the wealthy. It was often enjoyed at aristocratic banquets and cooked for longer, served at a softer consistency than the classic al dente. Yet, throughout the next 300 years, pasta was synonymous with the diet of the poor and predominantly eaten as a street food; often a pile of macaroni and grated cheese that would be eaten with fingers only. Pasta was mostly eaten without a sauce, as tomato was only introduced to Italy in the 1800s.
The first pasta-making machine was created by Cesare Spaddacini, who invented a kneader to replace foot-kneading and was designed for use in factories. However, the first commercial hand-crank pasta machine was developed and patented in 1906 by Angelo Vitantonio, an Italian immigrant, in Cleveland, Ohio. The machine allowed faster pasta-making and quickly developed acclaim in kitchens across the world. You can still buy antique Vitantonio machines today!
Over the years, the design of pasta-makers has not changed much, but very few people still make their own pasta. It is readily available supermarkets at a low cost, and with today’s fast-paced life-style, pasta has become an easy meal instead of the cherished art it once was.