Is history of pasta at all important? After all, eating and drinking are part of life, and all that really matters after a meal is whether or not it was enjoyable and sustaining. Few classic dishes can be attributed to a creator who might be worthy of a monument; perhaps the only examples are mayonnaise and French praline, whose originators are named in the Larousse Gastronomique. Even in the case of more recent creations, cordon bleu for example, the trail ends somewhere in the grand European hotels of the turn of century. And from old recipe collections it has been proven that it was not the Tatin sisters who “invented” the upside-down apple and caramel tart, in the sense that Edison invented the light bulb.

There has also been a great deal of bluster about the discovery of pasta, with national pride playing no small part, particularly among the Italians. If dough van be said to be amorphous or unshaped, then pasta becomes a synonym for a shoping or designing. There is, in fact, etymological justification for this. The word “dough” is related to the Sanskrit dheigh, which means to knead or to work. Thus the dough is an undefined mass waiting to be shaped into noodles and so on. And the word “noodle” itself goes back to the Latin nodus or nodellus, meaning “node” or “nodule.” Remarkably, however, this loan-word has survived only in English, French (nouilles), and German (Nudeln).

The German word for knot or node has the same root, and gave rise to the name for another kind of food made of dough, the Knödel, or dumplings, of southern Germany and Austria.

The dim and distant past

The story of the Venetian Marco Polo, who is said to have seen noodles being made in China, and then to have brought some of this new food home with him, is probably just an entertaining anecdote: his account of his journey, dictated in prison in Genoa in 1298, did not become widely available until the invention of printing towards the end of the 15th century. By this time people in southern Italy had long been devouring “maccheroni,” which is what all pasta, of whatever shape, were called in Naples and Sicily. It seems reasonable to suppose that the idea of making something as simple as pasta dough would occur to all people able to grind wheat sufficiently finely. Making bread by adding yeast seems a positive stroke of genius in comparison.

Something approximating pasta is said to have been identified on Etruscan funerary plaques. And it is now accepted that the Arabs, who knew about durum wheat before the Italians, used to cook thinly rolled sheets of dough. The technique of rolling wheat paste into thin sticks in order to dry it in the sun and thus preserve it has got into macaroni? The origin of documents in the Museum of Pasta – once located in Pontedassion, a town on the Ligurian Riveria, and now in Rome – is still uncertain. What is curious, however, is that the ancient Romans, on the evidence of recipe collections that have come down to us, do not seems to have prepared any pasta dishes. Perhaps they were simply unsuited to the cuisine of the polite society of that time, whose eating habits were detailed in the writings of both Petronius and Apicius.

Spaghetti eating as a spectator sport

In fact, pasta has never been polite or refined. The lazzaroni of Naples, a horde of good-for-nothings and idlers, are said to have subsisted largely on pasta. The scope this offered for showing off can well be imagined: until the 16th century few people used table cutlery, least of all forks, so diners would take long strips of pasta in their hands, tilt their heads backwards, and let the pasta slide into their mouths; often they did not even chew it, but simply swallowed it whole. Such artistry was undoubtedly congenial to those of an exhibitionist temperament.

For rich and poor

So we are in Italy. Where else? It was only in that country, not in China or Japan, that pasta became a cult object, the focus of culinary attention, comparable in status with rice in Far East. The dumplings of Germany can lay no claim to such a success story, and in France there has never been a food of such fundamental, to a certain extent “national,” importance. Pasta dishes even reflected the social order in Italy: egg noodles, and meat encased in sheets of pasta, where available for the rich, while the giutta.

What about the tomatoes?

Nowadays we think of the marriage of pasta and tomatoes as authentically Italian. Of course, the combination cannot be very deeply rooted in the past, since tomatoes were not cultivated in Italy until the 19th century. The abundance and powerful flavour of this solanaceous plant, which includes the deadly nightshade among its relatives, have made it both cheap and popular. However, the tomato was not available all year round until it became an industrial product, first as a concentrated paste in cans or tubes and then peeled, chopped or whole, in cans. Prior to this, the only way of preserving tomatoes was to dry them and keep them in oil, or to seal a ready-made sauce in glass jars especially made for the purpose.

But the producers have not been idle. Pomodori – literally, golden apples – now ripen all year round: however, their flavour and texture often leave something to be desired, even in Italy.

The industrial age

The wide range of pasta shapes familiar to us today became possible only through industrial production, which is relatively recent phenomenon. It is true that, at an early stage, the pasta-obsessed people of Naples developed various means of hastening the production process, but is wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that the attractively grooved or curved pasta shapes, with their highly imaginative names, were first produced. Large, high-speed presses, designed by inspired engineers in France, Switzerland, and Italy, made this possible.

The French have a saying: there is no cooking without cooks, meaning that culinary discoveries are always made in the kitchen. But this is not the case with dried pasta: certainly as far as shape is concerned, it is a purely industrial product. The Italians do not consider this to be a flaw in any way. Even while fresh pasta continued to be made in many households, factory-made spaghetti, at least, absolutely straight and incredibly long, soon replaced the homemade variety. Older people will remember that the commercial spaghetti of their youth was bent at one end, as if it had been dried on a rail – a notion that still made sense during the transition from manual to machine production. (You still see some of this spaghetti today.) Italians are not at all suspicious of machines. Indeed, the pride and joy of may Italian restaurants is still a device that produces noodles or presses and shapes ravioli. Of course, there are many connoisseurs who are persuaded of the quality of handmade pasta. They avoid machines and willingly accept that making pasta by hand requires extra time and effort.

Pasta spreads throughout the world

The spread of pasta beyond Italy is also part of its history. It is very difficult to explain why the French have never really taken to pasta, even though French cuisine is said to have it’s roots in the Italy of Catherine De’Medici. She introduced the cooking of her native country to the court of Henry II – and pasta was undoubtedly known in late Renaissance Italy. The reason why Catherine did not bring pasta with her can be that it was a food for the poor and therefore not suitable for the court. Even Escoffier, who is said to have revitalized 20th-century cooking, includes no pasta dishes in his Guide Culinaire, apart from a few Italian-style gnocchi and macaroni recipes. It is interesting to note, however, that it was in France that Thomas Jefferson first encountered pasta; he took some macaroni back to the Unites States in 1786.

All other countries north of the Alps proved to be more receptive, though mainly to industrial pasta, which was cheap and very popular with children. Only in southern Germany and in Alpine regions was there any resistance: the traditional types of German pasta, such as Spätzle and Maultaschen, a sort of large ravioli, were not completely ousted, not even by really good egg noodles, which are not dissimilar to Spätzle in flavor.

Apart from the Chinese, the Italians are most successful exporters of their national cuisine. Everywhere they open a restaurant – and where are there no Italians? – they also spread their pasta culture, from North America to Australia, from northern Europe to South Africa. Theirmost popular export, pizza, is so far ahead in the race as to be unbeatable, but spaghetti is hot on its heels. Even the French are now beginning to learn how to wrap the long strands around their forks and raise them toe their mouths. Asian noodles, like the colorless cellophane or bean noodles, are gaining in popularity, but they are eaten most often in restaurants, where they are served fried, enjoy their crunchiness.

Astonishingly, the development of stuffed pasta followed virtually the same path in Italy and in China. Chiese ravioli differ only slightly from the Italian version. Who learned what from whom remains unclear to this day. The only thing the Italians have never tried their hands at, despite their passion for things artistic, is the technique of repeatedly stretching a ball of dough until it forms thin noodles.

Pasta makes it to the top

The multicultural cuisine of our time has certainly muddled everything up. The Japanese now eat spaghetti, the Italians eat cellophane noodles, and the top cooks in all countries have discovered that pasta stuffed with various fillings is a great delicacy, regardless of whether it is called “raviolis,” as in France, or wonton, or whether it is boiled, steamed, or fried. And a few paper-thin noodles – homemade of course – enliven the ambitious menus of leading chefs everywhere. Fresh pasta, whether commercially prepared of homemade, has even penetrated the domestic kitchen, with more and more cooks trying to emulate the Italian pasta specialists.

Pasta beyond Italy

Everyone is now aware that pasta is treated differently at mealtimes in Italy. The Italians have always considered pasta to be worthy of a course in its own right, the primo, which comes before the secondo, or entrée. The three-course meanl, consisting of antipasti (hors d’oeuvres), primo (pasta or risotto), and secondo (meat or fish, possibly accompanied by vegetables), has remained more or less unchanged, even in the upper reaches of Italian gastronomy, while to the north of the Alps, and elsewhere in the world, different customs have emerged. There, pasta is either used as an accompaniment to meat and as a vehicle for sauces of all kinds, or forms the main course, whether as a dish of as part of a dish baked in the oven.
There is not a great deal to be said about noodles as a side-dish, and every cook knows they are delicious simply dressed with a little melted butter or extra-virgin oil. Egg noodles are the favourite choice as a side-dish for roasts and their gravy. And for those seeking a little more variety in their side-dishes, the imaginatively shaped products of the pasta industry, such as bow ties (farfalle) or wagon wheels (rotelle), can be recommended, as can the combinations of yellow, red, green, and other colored pastas that are now available.

One-dish meals for hungry families include the familiar and well-loved macaroni and cheese, lasagne of all kinds, manicotti and cannelloni, spaghetti and meatballs, an endless variety of pasta casseroles, and traditional German types of pasta, such as Spätzle, that are often served with browned onions and rich melting cheese.