Who Invented Pasta?
The origins of pasta are polarising, to say the least. A common misconception is that the explorer Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China in the 13th century. This idea was based on an extract in Marco Polo’s journals in which he describes a ‘pasta tree’ – now thought to be a Sago tree. In Italian, ‘pasta’ can mean dough or paste, and the flesh of the Sago tree can be used to make a type of starchy bread, hence why he described it as a ‘pasta tree’. While pasta did exist in China for centuries before the Venetian explorer visited, he did not bring it back to Il Bel Paese.
Though the Polo origin story is widely regarded as a myth, the real origins of pasta are much more difficult to pinpoint. Pasta certainly existed in Italy long before Marco Polo headed off to explore new lands, but its exact origins have unfortunately been lost in the depths of time. Some attribute its beginnings to the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilisation found in central Italy. The evidence for this belief, however, is quite tenuous – a relic from an Etruscan tomb supposedly shows pasta-making equipment. Even if the equipment was used for cooking, it was probably for the production of testaroli – an ancient flatbread/pasta hybrid typical of Tuscany and Liguria.
It is much more likely that the pasta we enjoy today was introduced by Arab traders in Sicily during the 8th and 9th centuries. Traders from North Africa would carry dried strands of durum wheat and water for sustenance during long voyages.
Pasta for the People
Although the early days of pasta are disputed, we know for sure that pasta was widely enjoyed in Italy by the Medieval period. Pasta is depicted in multiple artworks of the age and mentioned numerous times in literature. In his 14th century work The Decameron, Boccaccio even depicts a hill of melting Parmesan cheese upon which pasta-chefs make ravioli and macaroni, before rolling it down to a group of ravenous gluttons... Now that’s some artwork we can get behind!
Whilst scenes like this were reserved for literature, pasta was enjoyed by poor and rich alike. Pasta was a source of energy for the poorest in society when meat was scarce – and it was generally eaten plain. Rich nobles, on the other hand, would fill and cover it with a wide range of ingredients. Many of the combinations they concocted would seem strange today – they mixed savoury, spicy, and even sweet ingredients into their pasta. One particular recipe worthy of mentioning is a 16th-century take on ravioli - filled with boiled pork belly, cow udders and raisins!
Pasta in the Modern World
With the passing of time, pasta became more popular – being paired with different sauces and moulded into new shapes to hold them. The first instance of tomato sauce, for example, is recorded in a cookbook named L’Apicio Moderno by Francesco Leonardi in 1790 – now it’s synonymous with pasta, lavishly covering everything from giant gnocchi to strands of bucatini.
The 17th and 18th centuries also saw pasta being appreciated more by non-Italians. This was mostly due to the emergence of ‘The Grand Tour’ – a trip taken by Europe’s young, well-to-do men as a rite of passage through the continent’s cultural capitals. Aristocratic travellers like Lord Byron would traverse the length of Italy, engaging in all manner of debauchery and occasionally pausing to wonder at the country’s cultural bounty. Pasta made its way into their hedonistic rampage and left quite an impression. Many young Englishman brought it back home, alongside various other affectations picked up abroad – so much so, that the term macaroni came to signify a kind of 18th-century hipster, with an over-the-top hairstyle.
These young adventurers weren’t the only ones to spread the joy of pasta outside the confini of Italy though. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many Italians – often from the lowest rungs of society – left the Patria to seek better lives abroad. They carried with them a wealth of local traditions – and, of course, a love of pasta. Before long, spaghetti, penne, fusilli, and tortelloni (amongst others) could be found in kitchens across the USA and Australia, sparking the global fixation with quality, fresh pasta. There are now over 300 shapes of pasta and Italy alone consumes approximately 1.4 million tonnes a year.
Whether you’re twirling a fork into a decadent helping of glossy carbonara, or tucking into a perfectly-crisped slice of lasagna, you’ll know that your meal has a long and illustrious history.
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