Pasta: an in-depth investigation
Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Bruce Lee
Roman lagana, Arab itriyya and fidaws, lasagna, crozets, macrows, macaroni, ravioli, ravioles, vermicelli, noodles...
The Legend of Marco Polo and the discovery of pasta
The noodle dates back to the dawn of recorded human history, around the third millennium BC. Invented by the Chinese and passed down from generation to generation, it came to Europe when Marco Polo returned to Venice from China and taught his people the skill of noodle-making. (Célébration de la Nouille, Raymond Oliver, Robert Morel 1965)
This popular legend is in fact a fictional story invented at the beginning of the 20th century by Macaroni Journal, an American journal published by the pasta industry. And it still works!
To learn the real history of pasta
We investigated using the work of historians Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban (Les pâtes, Actes Sud, 2001). Here are our results:
Studying old texts, we found that the words revealed two paths of understanding of the history of pasta and its diversification during Renaissance Italy:
- Fresh pasta
- Dried pasta
- Rise of pasta
To resolve this complicated affair, we divide the story of pasta into 2 geographic regions:
Pasta in the Middle East/Europe
We find fresh pasta made from soft wheat and dried pasta made from hard wheat served with short sauces. Their fabrication dates from Roman Times for fresh pasta of the lasagna variety. We found the first trace of vermicelli pasta in 3rd century Palestine, and throughout the Arab world from the 9th century onward. Pasta arrived in Northern France and Germany in the 12th century via the Jews. At the same time, the Arab-Andalusian influence brought pasta to Spain and Sicily. From Sicily, it developed and expanded in Italy before becoming a truly global dish from the 19th century onward.
Kids from Naples eating macaroni, beginning of 20th century
Pasta in China
We find pasta made from different ingredients and prepared by steaming or poaching in broth with vegetables, meat, fish or seafood. The first recipes appeared in Northern China in the 3rd century and are found throughout China between the 10th-13th centuries.
Here is a historic method, rather unique in modern times, to cook pasta: sweet pasta with spices.
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1 - Fresh pasta from the lasagna family
Fried lasagna from the Greeks and Romans
- From the Greek laganon comes the Latin laganum, which is eventually translated in English as lasagna (from the same word in Italian). These words refer to pasta served with vegetables, aromatics and meat, and prepared by deep-frying. We found several mentions in Latin literature: a recipe from Athenaeus in Banquet of the learned, 2nd century text which summarizes a recipe from The art of the baker, from the Greek Chrysippus of Tyana from the 1st century. Laganas are described as thin sheets of wheat flour dough with crushed lettuce juice, flavoured with spices, then fried. In the works of Apicius in the 5th century, we also find two recipes for lagana, in book IV, II n° 14 Apicius' Patina recipe and n°15 Everyday Patina. But are these recipes actually lasagnas (where we alternate between a layer of pasta and stuffing) or multi-layered pies (where stuffing is covered by a single-layer of dough pierced by a hollow reed)? This depends on the type of dough used, but we are not given any details.
- Saint-Jerome (347-420), who translated the Vulgate in the Old Testament, called unleavened bread "lagana", which was made of white flour and coated with oiled.
- Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636) called laganum "a large and thin loaf of bread first cooked in water then fried in oil".
- The 13th century marked the first mention of lasagnas in Italy. Merchants of fresh pasta were called lasagnari. These merchants made artisanal products for local customers. The first recipe, written before 1300 comes from Liber de Coquina, originated from the region of Naples (De lasanis, III-10).
- Lasagna, large and thin pasta, became a little pie once stuffed. In the beginning, tortelli and ravioli were fritters (De rauiolis, II-60, Liber de Coquina) before later becoming stuffed pastas poached in broth (Martino, 15th century). From the beginning, raviolis were stuffed with either meat or herbs.
- Lasagna became croseti when cut, like in recipe III-11 in Liber de Coquina, which later turned into the crozets of Savoy (France).
Plain crozets. Photo: Alpina Savoie
- In the Forme of Cury, they were called macrows (the English translation of the Italian maccherone). From the 13th century, the word maccharoni was used to describe flat pasta. The real macaroni, which is made differently than lasagna, is first made in the 15th century.
All fresh pasta of the lasagna variety is made with soft wheat.
2) Dried pasta - 3) Rise of pasta - Top of page
2 - Dried pasta from the vermicelli family
From the Jewish Community
Between the 3rd and 5th centuries, the rabbinical academies of Palestine discuss the status of dough for itrium, whereby they planned to use the rest to make bread (Jerusalem Talmud: Mishnah or the oral Torah). They tried to determine if itrium cooked in the humid environment of pot, is not subject to the Hallah, while bread cooked using the dry heat of an oven is subject to Hallah.
*(Note: Hallah is a religious requirement that demands that the first portion of bread, about the size of an egg, be removed as an offering)
- We find the words vermishelsh (vermicelli?) and trijes (tri?) in the commentary of Rashi in the Jerusalem Talmud: in the 12th century, the Jewish communities of Northern France question the hallah of certain pastas. In the same century, a German disciple of Rashi wonders about the Hallah of vrimzlish. Are vermishelsh and vrimzlish the Jewish ancestors of vermicelli or do these names indicate the influence of Italian cuisine in Jewish communities, perhaps via Sicily? Only one thing is certain: the word vermicelli (little worms) appears for the first time in Italian culinary literature at the beginning of the 14th century.
From the Arab World
- Itriyya is the Arab word used in the 9th century by Syrian physician Jesu Bar Ali to refer to vermicelli. At the same time, Gerard of Cremona, who translated The Canon of Medicine, uses the word tri to translate itriyya. This word is used by physician Simon of Genoa to refer to a long-stringed, flat pasta: vermicelli.
- In the 12th century, Arab geographer Idrisi wrote about an important trade in pasta called itriyya in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Trabia (east of Palermo). Sicily, then under Norman occupation, was still inhabited by an important number of Muslims.
- Instead of itriyya, Arabs wrote also of fidaws, which became fideos in Spanish, fidei, fidiaux in Provencal (in Avignon in 1397, they were called semola de fideis), and then fidès in Savoy.
Avoines, pasta from Alpina Savoie (France)
- In the 13th century, we found many recipes for fidaws and itriyya in Arab-Andalusian cookbooks. Pasta of the vermicelli variety was often cooked in broth or stews, to give substance to the dish.
Preparation of fidaws
Vigorously knead about one Rtel of semolina [480g] with water and salt, fold the dough, put it in a covered container, roll the dough little by little between the fingers forming grains the size of a wheat grain, each grain of pasta should be fine and the edges should be finer than the centre, put the rolled pasta into a basket. When all the dough is used, dry the pasta in the sun and knead more dough in the same manner until we have the quantity of pasta needed.
To cook the pasta, take good mutton meat, from the loin or saddle or other. Cut the meat into medium-sized pieces, rinse and place in a large pot with a lot of water, salt, oil, pepper, coriander and a bit of diced onion and cook; once cooked, remove and place in a covered terrine, filter the broth, wash the pot, and return the broth to the pot, see if it is enough to cook the pasta, otherwise add more water.
When the broth boils, add the pasta slowly, cook over medium heat until pasta are sufficiently cooked. Meanwhile, boil water in a small pot. If the large pot of pasta becomes dry, add water from the small pot to prevent burning.
Once the pasta is cooked, add fresh butter or smem (salted preserved butter), bring back to a boil, and stir delicately with the handle of the ladle to avoid breaking the pasta. Meanwhile, brown the meat in a tagine with butter and smem, when the pasta is ready, pour into the terrine, place meat on top, and sprinkle with cinnamon and ginger and eat bismillah.
Fudalat al-Khiwan d'Ibn Razin Tujibi. English translation by Bruce Lee from a French translation by Mohamed Mezzine et Laila Benkirane, p. 63. Publication association Fès-Saïss.
In 1324, in the Sent Sovi, we find 2 recipes for alatria (from the Hispano-Arabic atriya and Arabic itriyya), that Rodolph Grewe translates as macaroni: Qui parla con se cou alatria (Describing how to cook macaroni, n°170) et Qui parla con se cou carn ab alatria (Describing how to cook meat with macaroni, n°171).
In the Liber de Coquina, end of the 13th century, we find a recipe for Tria génoises (II-66). Here is the translation:
For Genovese pastas, chop the scallions, add them to the pasta and oil, and cook together in boiling water, and add spices; colour and season to taste. It can be accompanied by shredded or sliced cheese. Serve as you please with capon and mutton or any other meat.
(English translation by Bruce Lee from a French translation by Father Imbert)
- In the 14th and 15th centuries, the word fidaws or fideus replaces itriyya or tri to describe pasta exported from the city of Cagliari in Sardenia to destinations such as: Barcelona, Mallorca, Valencia, Genoa, Naples or Pisa. At the end of the 14th century, in the ledgers of customs officers of Sardenia, the words macaroni and alatria are found. Are these three different types of pastas? At the time, Sardinia is under the occupation of the kingdom of Aragon & Catalonia. The Catalan influence explains the use of the word fideus. The makers of dried pastas were later called fidelari all along the Ligurian coast.
In Central Europe
Outside of itriyya and fidaws, American historian Charles Perry found a variety of Persian pasta called lâkhshâ, which means slippery things. They consist of fresh pasta similar to the vermicelli family, rather than the lasagna family.
Lâkhshâ would be the predecessor of the family of noodles which developed in Central Europe. The connection is found in the names: laska in Hungarian, lapsha in Russian, lokshina in Ukranian, loskshn in Yiddish, lakstiniai in Lituanian. We ignore the origin of the German word nudle, which became nouille in French and noodle in English.
1) Fresh pasta - 3) Rise of pasta - Top of page
3 - The rise of pasta
In 15th century Italy, the types of pastas made went through a large diversification, which resulted in the creation of many different names: croseti, formentine, maccaroni, quinquinelli, ravioli, tortelli, vermicelli. The names and recipes for each differed from one region to another.
The generic word pasta was not used in the modern sense until later on. In the 14th century, Sardinian merchants used the expression obra de pasta to refer to the dry pastas that they exported abroad. In 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi edited his grand treatise of cuisine Opera, the Book Five, Libro delle paste (book of pastas) and included recipes for pâtés, tortes, pies and cakes like sweet cakes, waffles and marzipans.
The makers of fresh pasta were small artisans who produce for local customers. The makers of dry pasta were more important artisans, as their products were exported. Pasta manufacturers who made semi-industrial quantities appeared in Italy from the 17th century. The industrial era began at the end of the 19th century with the arrival of hydraulic presses, when all pastas were made from hard wheat.
In Germany and Alsace, there is a long history of pasta. In 1507, the first cookbook on Alsatian cuisine is published (Kochbuch) and in 1540, the German version by Platine (Von allen speisen und Gerichten, Strasbourg) already listed recipes for pasta. From the 17th century, the pastas of Alsace (noodles) are already rich in eggs. Fresh pasta, called nudeln, would later be called nouilles in French and noodle in English.
In France, for centuries, pasta were called nouilles, macaroni and lasagnas... in Provence, they were called menudez, macarons, vermisseaux or fidiaux.
It would take until the beginning of the 19th century to use the generic word pasta to describe all these different types.
The spread of pasta around the world was due in part to the immigration of Italians, who brought their knowledge and tastes, to the USA and Latin America.
Another way to learn more about the history of pasta (in French): Liliane Plouvier, historian from Brussels and specialist in the history of cuisine and confectionary in Europe.
Noodles and China - The art of cooking pasta - Top of page