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"It's All about the food"

June 2011

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January 2012


History of Pasta - March's It's All About the Food!!

In the two or three years that I've been asked to talk about Italian food and all it encompasses I've spoken about a lot of things but it recently dawned on me that my God, I haven't even touched on pasta! It's our staple. Who doesn't eat and like a nice bowl of pasta? The answer is no one. It, along with pizza, is the most recognized food IN THE WORLD. You can get a bowl of pasta in Peking, Johannesburg, Lima, or Sidney. It's a dish of the world that has it's roots associated with Italy. But just where did it come from and how is it associated with Italy?

Pasta goes back in recorded time thousands of years. As early as the 11th century B.C. the ancient Romans and Etruscans were cooking something they called "lagane", which was the precursor to lasagna. It was a flat noodle made with water and flour that was baked not boiled. The next time we see pasta recorded is in the 8th century in Sicily by the Arabs. They introduced a dry noodle in Palermo and it was called "macaroni". It was called macaroni because in Sicilian that is the term for the long laborious process which it took to make. It took several men a day to mill durum wheat into flour. There was no mill then, they had to stomp the wheat with their feet until the wheat was fine enough to be called flour. Durum wheat is granular, like sugar, and to mill it into flour took all day and that process was called "macaroni" by the Sicilians, thus the name macaroni became associated with pasta. The dough was then mixed with water and put through dies with very heavy screw presses and turned by two men or even sometimes a horse then hung to dry. This process spread to the mainland and the dried pasta proved to have a very long shelf life and was great for the sailors of Venice, and Genoa to take with them on their long voyages.

What about Marco Polo you ask? Isn't he credited with bringing back pasta from China and hence spreading it all over the world on his voyages? The answer is no. Marco Polo left for China from Venice in 1271 and returned in 1295, a 24 year excursion. In 1279 a sailor, Ponzio Baestone, willed a small basket of macaroni to his heirs. So pasta was already in Italy long before Marco Polo returned from China. What Marco Polo did bring back was a rice pasta dumpling, very similar to ravioli. So credit him with ravioli if you must, not the pasta that we eat daily.

By 1400 pasta was so popular it was made by shops all over Italy and these shops employed night-watchmen to guard their shops. Because of all the labor involved in making it, stealing it was a temptation that thieves could not resist.

By 1600 Naples was in an industrial revolution and a process was made to put the dough through a mechanical die and the whole process became much more efficient. Gone were the two men stamping on the wheat all day. Flour became much more available so much so that the Neapolitans were called mangia-maccheroni, translated means macaroni eaters. To show how fast the industry was growing in 1700 there were 60 pasta shops in Naples, by 1785 there were over 300!

Dried pasta was the food of the man on the street sold by food vendors and eaten with bare hands topped by a little goat or sheep cheese.. The rich usually ate pasta stuffed with meat or cheese. It wasn't until the fork was invented by a chambermaid of King Ferdinand that pasta was then eaten by all. Imagine a little thing like a fork changed pasta eating forever.

There are over 350 different shapes of dried pasta and to be honest here the Italian brands dried pasta are the best in the world. Why? Because they have to adhere to strict traditional regulations. One is that it must be made with 100% durum semolina, another is Italian pasta is extruded with copper dies as opposed to steel dies. The copper dies give the body a more rigid feel which enables it to hold its sauce and the third reason is that the pasta is dried for over 50 hours at a low temperature as opposed to a shorter period in a higher temperature. All of this results in a better feel in the mouth, quicker cooking time, and superior holding of the sauce. For my money I use DeCicco and Barilla (the one from Italy, not from Idaho)

All pasta starts out fresh. To eat it fresh it should be eaten right away before the drying out process begins. Fresh pasta is usually stuffed (ravioli, agnolotti, cannelloni) and primarily eaten in the North and made with flour and eggs, not water.

Today Italians eat on the average of 60 lbs. of pasta per year, here in the U.S. we eat about 20 lbs. per year. Of course that doesn't take into account we Italian-Americans who certainly eat enough to compete with the Italians.

Of the 350 shapes, most of them take the name of the shapes that they are. For instance, farfalle are like butterflies, orichiette like little ears, ditalini are little thimbles, spaghetti is little twine. I could go on forever but right now it's Sunday morning, my gravy is slowly cooking, and its time "to put the water on" because after all, it's ALL ABOUT THE FOOD. See you next month...Dan


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