Nothing is more classic Italian than a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It is the premier dish, especially in the eyes of foreigners who are not entirely familiar with the finesse and the rich regional variety of la cucina italiana. Pasta is the culinary symbol par excellence of Italian identity. Eating pasta is the number one Italian experience that anybody can carry out globally with the availability of the right ingredients.
Italian cooking starts with authentic ingredients, a feast of colours, and mouthwatering flavours that rely on recipes. Pasta can be fresh or dried, rolled or filled. There are more than 350 types of pasta, and each shape is suitable for several recipes. Individual Italian cities and rural areas contribute their typical pasta dishes. And each preparation has its history.
Pasta dishes entered the Italian kitchens in the Middle Ages. But where and when exactly did the pasta industry begin? The dried pasta with durum wheat tradition began in Sicily under Arab rule around 800 AD. The Arabs occupied Sicily in the ninth century — the Sicilians remained under Islamic domination for more than 200 years until the Norman conquest of the 11th century.
Arab culture deeply penetrated Sicily.
An extraordinary historical account proves the existence of a very active dried pasta industry in Trabia, Sicily, around 1150. The account came down to us from Muhammad al-Idrisi, a North African nobleman, traveller and geographer, who became an adviser to the Norman King Roger II. al-Idrisi revealed the existence of a pasta industry in his Arabic book Tabula Rogeriana, which focused on the territories all around the Mediterranean Sea. When writing about Trabia, a town only 19 miles southeast of Palermo, al-Idrisi noted the presence of “perennial waters that move several mills” and of farms where “a lot of pasta” was produced. “That was the first pasta industry in history,” writes Massimo Montanari in A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce, a book by Europa Editions that inquires into pasta’s origins. “It was a true industry that controlled all phases of the productive cycle: from the harvesting and milling of the wheat to the fabrication and marketing of the pasta,” explains Montanari, a professor of Medieval History and History of Nutrition at the University of Bologna. “The cultural and political context of the time was extraordinarily open-minded and featured collaboration among Christians, Jews, and Muslims,” he notes.
Sicily invented and revolutionised pasta. The beloved Italian tradition of making pasta has nothing to do with the history of China’s noodles that followed its routes. It was a widespread belief that Marco Polo had a role in the history of pasta. But that is just a myth. Marco Polo did not introduce noodles in Italy until 1296 upon his return to Venice from China. When Marco Polo came back, Italians had already eaten pasta for more than 200 years!
THE MIDDLE EASTERN INFLUENCE
Italian pasta culture is autonomous, yet Middle Eastern cultures have affected our starting point. “The search for origins takes us to the Fertile Crescent, the Middle Eastern regions to the east of the Mediterranean,” explains Montanari. “Around 10-12 thousand years ago, the agricultural revolution began, and with it, the culture of wheat and its derivatives — first among them, bread, which became the symbol of that revolution.”
Pasta originated as a variation of unleavened bread, occasionally dried to enhance conservation. “That thin dough, flattened with a rolling pin or worked by hand into elongated or other shapes, was called Lakhsha,” explains Montanari. “Another term, Rishta, indicated a type of pasta cut in strips or strings (like tagliatelle or spaghetti) before being dried,” he writes.
Both the Greeks and Romans took up the Middle Eastern practice of rolling dough. The Romans used the Latin word lagana, a dish similar to our lasagna. They fried it or baked it without first boiling the noodles in water. “Possibly, Jewish merchants introduced the procedures for preparing dried pasta to the western Mediterranean countries,” explains Montanari. “Pietro Ispano, a medical doctor who became pope in 1276, referred to dried pasta as ‘Jewish food’ (Cibus Iudaeorum).”
“But the Arabs spread the culinary custom of dried pasta throughout the regions they governed — Sicily, North Africa and Andalusia,” insists Montanari. “Thanks to their mediation, the new practice was superimposed on the Greek and Roman tradition of fresh pasta.”
For a fact, 12th century Sicily paved the way for the development of the pasta industry. And in the early 13th century, Sicilians realised that Sardinians were their first competitors in producing and exporting pasta. A few decades later, the Italian maritime cities such as Genoa, Pisa, and Venice would establish pasta factories to develop a flourishing import-export trade.
During the Renaissance, Italy saw a boom in the consumption of filled pasta such as tortellini, ravioli and agnolotti. All three combined the tradition of Ancient Romans’ lagana — a dish similar to lasagna but cut into smaller pieces — with the skill of making savoury pastries or torte in medieval times.
In the mid-16th century, Naples took a dominant role in producing dried pasta, generally known as macaroni. In 1576, the Arte dei Vermicellari, the corporation of pasta makers in the Kingdom of Naples, broke off from the corporation of the bakers to assume managerial autonomy, and vermicelli, a long pasta slightly thicker than spaghetti, became the local staple food. The Neapolitans were soon dubbed macaroni eaters, much like the Sicilians centuries earlier as Sicily was the incubator of the culture of pasta or macaroni. “In the 17th century Naples, macaroni would become the street food par excellence and pasta stands would become places of entertainment for gentlemen visiting the city,” says Montanari.
The villages overlooking the Gulf of Naples, such as Gragnano, still have the ideal climate for drying pasta, thanks to the Maestrale, a sea breeze blowing through Provence into the Mediterranean that mixes with hot winds from Mount Vesuvius.
The Italian pasta market remains the most concentrated market in the world. Italy is the leading dry pasta producing country, and Italians have the highest per capita consumption, with 23.5 kilograms per year, followed by Tunisia, 17 kilograms, and Venezuela, 12 kilograms.
So where did the word ‘spaghetti’ originate? The Italian word ‘spago’ means thin string, and spaghetti is the plural of spago — a description of what spaghetti looks like. In the mid-15th century, Maestro Martino, a chef from the papal court, explained how to make Sicilian macaroni, pasta sticks as thin as a straw. “The ‘spago’ mentioned in the Sicilian macaroni recipe refers to the wire for piercing the dough,” explains Montanari.
However, people started using the term spaghetti only in the mid-1800s. And today, in Naples, the word maccheroni (macaroni) remains in current use to refer to spaghetti.
All Italian cookbooks, even the earlier culinary literature, speak about pairing pasta perfectly with aged cheese such as Parmigiano, Grana, and Pecorino, whose dry nature is ideal for balancing the moist nature of its companion.
Grating cheese fine favours its blending with the still boiling-hot pasta.
WHAT PERFECTION LOOKS LIKE
For centuries, Italian pasta has been served white with cheese. Butter and spices would enrich the cheese in recipes destined only for wealthy dinner tables. A mid-1300s novella from Boccaccio’s masterpiece, The Decameron, portrays the fabulous Bengodi, an abundant food town where “they had a mountain made of grated parmesan cheese, where people did nothing but make ravioli and gnocchi that they cooked. Then they would toss them down below, and the more you picked up, the more you had”.
Montanari points out that cheese on macaroni soon entered the world of Italian proverbs to indicate an ideal combination. In contrast, macaroni without cheese became the metaphor for imperfection.
The very first plate of pasta with olive oil was made for aristocratic tables only at the end of the 1600s by Antonio Latini. Dressing pasta with extra-virgin olive oil became “normal” only in the 1950s when the concept of the Mediterranean diet, known as a food model, took shape.
Olive oil has been a distinctive element of Mediterranean culture for millennia — ancient Romans used it both as a condiment and cosmetic. Yet later in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, olive oil was costly, a luxury only a few could afford.
On a different note, the marriage between pasta and tomato sauce is fundamental, yet it did not happen right away. Even though the first tomato plants arrived from the New World around 1544, the tomato sauce was entirely welcome into Italian cooking of the late 1700s.
When Goethe was in Naples in 1787, he observed that “macaroni is cooked simply in water and dressed with grated cheese”. Only a few years later, in 1781, Neapolitan chef Vincenzo Corrado wrote: “Tomatoes do a lot, with their acidic juice, to facilitate digestion, particularly during their summer season, during which, overcome by the heat, man’s stomach is relaxed and nauseous.” In the early 1800s, making spaghetti with tomato sauce became a chef’s classic.
In her reportage, Il Ventre di Napoli (The Belly of Naples, 1884), journalist and novelist Matilde Sarao writes: “All the streets in the four lower-class neighbourhoods have one of these taverns that have their cauldrons set up in the open air, where macaroni is always boiling, the pots where the tomato sauce is bubbling, mountains of grated cheese.”
Italian businessman and writer Pellegrino Artusi spread the “Southern” custom of dressing pasta with tomato sauce throughout the country. In his famous cookbook Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, published in 1891, he told how to make a good tomato sauce. Artusi was a businessman and writer who established a truly national Italian cuisine, and even the French cook Auguste Escoffier took inspiration from him. Artusi is the father of Italian cuisine because he included recipes from all the different regions of Italy in a single cookbook for the first time.
According to Artusi, tomato sauce requires a rich battuto (chopped seasonings) made with a quarter of an onion, a clove of garlic, a rib of celery, a few basil leaves, enough parsley. Add oil, salt, and pepper to the mix. Then cut seven or eight tomatoes into small pieces and put everything on the fire together.
Artusi ladled tomato sauce over hot pasta dishes already dressed with cheese and butter, as in the most established Italian tradition. In the 20th century, the roles reversed: Now, we add Parmesan cheese to tomato sauce.
Italian identity seems to be living in a simple plate of homemade spaghetti served al dente. The red of the tomato sauce, the white of spaghetti and cheese, and the green of basil leaves will always evoke the Italian flag.
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