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The Great Spaghetti Hoax of 1957

The following extract comes from Alex Boese’s outstanding Museum of Hoaxes (Orion 2002) and is a reminder of just how alien spaghetti was as late as the 1950s in much of western Europe.

On April 1, 1957, the British news show Panorama broadcast a segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland brought on by an unusually mild winter. The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched a rural Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. ‘The spaghetti harvest here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything lie the tremendous scale of the Italian industry,’ Dimbleby informed the audience. ‘For the Swiss… it tends to be more of a family affair.’

The narration then continued in a tone of absolute seriousness. ‘Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depredations have caused much concern in the past.’ Some viewer questions were anticipated. For instance, why does spaghetti always come in uniform lengths? ‘This is the result of many years of patient endeavour by past breeders who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.’ Finally, Dimbleby assured the audience, ‘For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti’.

Soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from puzzled viewers. Did spaghetti really grow on trees, they wanted to know. Others were eager to learn how they could grown their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC reportedly [is this really true? ed] replied that they should ‘place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best’. To be fair to viewers, spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain during the 1950s and was considered by many to be very exotic. Its origin must have been a real mystery to most people. Even Sir Ian Jacob, the BBC’s director general, later admitted that he had to run a reference book to check on where spaghetti came from after watching the show. The prestige of the Panorama show itself, and the general trust that was still placed in the medium of television, also lent the claim credibility. The idea for the segment was dreamed up by one of the Panorama cameramen, Charles de Jaeger. He later said that it occurred to him when he remembered one of his grade-school teachers chiding him for being ‘so stupid he would believe spaghetti grew on trees’.

Link to the youtube video

Marcella Hazan on Italian Regionalism

The first useful thing to know about Italian food is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist. ‘Italian cooking’ is an expression of convenience rarely used by Italians. The cooking of Italy is really the cooking of its regions, regions that until 1861 were separate, independent, and usually hostile states. They submitted to different rulers, they were protected by sovereign armies and navies, and they developed their own cultural traditions and, of course, their own special and distinct approaches to food.

The unique features of each region and of the individual towns and cities within it can still be easily observed when one travels through Italy. These are living differences that appear in the physical cast of the people, in their temperament, in their spoken language, and, most clearly, in their cooking.

The cooking of Venice, for example, is so distant from that of Naples, although they are both Italian cities specializing in seafood, that not a single authentic dish from the one is to be found on the other’s table. There are unbridgeable differences between Bologna and Florence, each the capital of its own region, yet only sixty miles apart. There are also subtle but substantial distinctions to be made between the cooking of Bologna and of other cities in its region, such as Cesena, fifty-two miles away, Parma, fifty-six miles, or Modena, just twenty-three miles to the north.

It isn’t only from the inconstant contours of political geography that cooking in Italy has taken its many forms. Even more significant has been the forceful shaping it has received from the two dominant elements of the Italian landscape – the mountains and the sea.

Italy is a peninsula shaped like a full-length boot that has stepped into the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas up to its thigh. There it is fastened to the rest of Europe by an uninterrupted chain of the tallest mountains on the continent, the Alps. At the base of the Alps spreads Italy’s only extensive plain, which reaches from Venice on the Adriatic Coast westward through Lombardy and into Piedmont. This is the dairy zone of Italy, and the best-irrigated land. The cooking fat is butter, almost exclusively, and rice or corn mush (polenta) are the staples. Up to a few years ago, when thousands of workers from the south came north to find jobs in Turin and Milan, macaroni was virtually known here.

The northern plain gives out just before touching the Mediterranean shore, where it reaches the foothills of the other great mountain chain of Italy, the Apennines. The chain extends from north to south for the whole length of the country like the massive, protruding spine of some immense beast. It is composed of gentle, softly rounded hills sloping toward the seas on the eastern and the western flanks and, in the central crest, of tall, forbidding stone peaks. Huddled within the links of this chain are countless valleys, isolated from each other until modern times like so many Shagrilas, giving birth to men, cultures and cooking styles profoundly different in character.

To a certain extent, the Apennine range helps determine that variety of climates which has also favoured diversity in cooking. Turin, the capital of Piedmont, standing in the open plain at the foot of the Alps, has winters more severe than Copenhagen. The Ligurian coast, just a few miles to the west, nestles against the Apennines, which intercept the cold Alpine winds and allow the soft Mediterranean breezes to create that mild, pleasant climate which has made the Riviera famous. Here flowers abound, the olives begin to flourish, and the fragrance of fresh herbs invades nearly every dish.

On the eastern side of the same Apennines that hug the Riviera coast lies the richest gastronomic region in Italy, Emilia-Romagna. Its capital, Bologna, is probably the only city in all Italy whose name is instantly associated in the Italian mind not with monuments, not with artists, not with heroes but with food.

Emilia-Romagna is almost evenly divided between mountainous land and flat, with the Apennines at its back and at its feet the last remaining corner of the northern plain rolling out to the Adriatic. This Emilian plain is extraordinarily fertile land enriched by the alluvial deposits of the countless Apennine torrents that have run through it toward the sea. It leads all Italy in the production of wheat, which perhaps explains why here it is almost heresy to sit down to a meal that doesn’t include a dish of homemade pasta. The vegetables of Emilia-Romagna may well be the tastiest in the world, surpassing even the quality of French produce. The fruit from its perfumed orchards is so remarkable in flavour that local consumers must compete with foreign markets for it. Italy’s best hams and sausages are made here and also some of its richest dairy products, among which is the greatest Italian cheese, Parmesan.

In Emiglia-Romagna the sea has been as bountiful as the land. The Adriatic, perhaps because it contains less salt than the Mediterranean, perhaps because it is constantly purified by fresh waters from Alpine streams, produces fish famous in all Italy for its fine delicate flesh. When a restaurant in any part of Italy offers fish from the Adriatic it makes sure its patrons know it. Since the quality of the fish is so fine it requires little enhancement in the kitchen, and Adriatic fish cookery has become the essence of masterful simplicity. Nowhere else except perhaps in Japan is fish fried or broiled so simply and well.

In crossing Emilia-Romagna’s southern border into Tuscany every aspect of cooking seems to have turned over and, like an, embossed coin, landed on its reverse side. Tuscany’s whole approach to the preparation of food is in such sharp contrast to that of Bologna that their differences seem to sum up the two main and contrary manifestations of the Italian character.

Out of the abundance of the Bolognese kitchen comes cooking that is exuberant, prodigal with precious ingredients, and wholly baroque in its restless exploration of every agreeable combination of texture and flavour. The Florentine, careful and calculating, is a man who knows the measure of all things, and his cooking is an austerely composed play upon essential and unadorned themes.

Bologna will sauté veal in butter, stuff it with the finest mountain ham, coat it with aged Parmesan, simmer it in sauce, and smother it with the costliest truffles. Florence takes a T-bone steak of noble size and grills it quickly over a blazing fire, adding nothing but the aroma of freshly ground pepper and olive oil. Both are triumphs.

From Tuscany down, the Apennines and their foothills in their southward march spread nearly from coast to coast so that the rest of Italy is almost entirely mountainous. As a result, two major changes take place in cooking. First, as it is cheaper and simpler on a hillside to cultivate a grove of olive trees than to raise a herd of dairy cows, olive oil supplants butter as the dominant cooking fat. Second, as we get farther away from the rich wheat fields of Emilia-Romagna, soft, homemade egg and flour pasta gives way to more economical, mass-produced, eggless hard macaroni, the staple of the south.

From Naples south the climate becomes considerably warmer. A harsher sun bakes the land, inflames the temper of the inhabitants, and ignites their sauces. At the toe-tip of the peninsula and in the heart of Sicily there is little rainfall, and most of that only in the winter months. The lands are parched by harsh, burning winds and the temperatures are sometimes higher than in the south of Texas. The food is extreme as the climate. The colours of the vegetables are intense and violent, the pastas are so pungent that they often need no topping of cheese, and the sweets are of the most overpowering richness.

There is no need here and certainly there is no room to examine in greater detail all the richly varied forms that history and geography have pressed upon the cooking of Italy. What is important is to be aware that these differences exist and that behind the screen of the too familiar term ‘Italian cooking’ lies concealed, waiting to be discovered, a multitude of riches.

Marco Polo on Pasta

‘You then come to another kingdom which is called Fansur.[1] The people are idolaters, and also call themselves subjects of the Great Khan; and understand, they are still on the same island that I have been telling you of. In this kingdom of Fansur grows the best Camphor in the world called Canfora Fansuri.[2] It is so fine that it sells for its weight in fine gold. The people have no wheat, but have rice which they eat with milk and flesh… And I will tell you another great marvel. They have a kind of trees that produce flour, and excellent flour it is for food. These trees are very tall and thick, but have a very thin bark, and inside the bark they are crammed with flour.[3] They use cleaned and ground flour, and make it into lasagna and several pasta dishes of which the said Marco Polo ate several times. He brought some back to Venice, and it is like barley bread, with the same flavour’.[4]

Nineteenth-century gelato from Artusi

The following recipes are taken from Baca and Sartarelli’s excellent translation of Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (first edition 1891). They remind us that gelato was not always, well, gelato

1) Roman Punch Gelato: This recipe serves six people. Lately this kind of ice cream has become popular at fancy dinner parties. It is usually served before the roasted meat course, because it aids digestion and prepares the stomach to receive the remaining course.

450 grams of sugar

2 cups of water

2 Oranges

2 Lemons

2 Egg whites

1 Small glass of rum

A dash of vanilla

Boil 250 grams of the sugar in one and a half cups of water with a little lemon and orange peel. Remove from the fire and squeeze the juice of the oranges and lemons into the syrup. Strain the mixture through a cloth and pour it into the gelato maker to freeze . Put the remaining 200 grams of sugar in a third of a cup of water, add the vanilla and boil until a drop does not run when poured onto a plate or makes a thread when tested between two fingers. By now you will have beaten the egg whites quite stiff, and you are ready to pour the syrup over them while it is still very hot. Then beat well to obtain a smooth consistency. After this mixture has cooled, combine it with the ice-cream and blend well. Add the rum just before sending to the table in stemmed glasses.

2) Strawberry Gelato:

300 grams of very ripe strawberries

300 grams of fine white sugar

half a liter of water

1 large garden lemon

1 orange

Boil the sugar in the water for ten minutes in an uncovered saucepan. Pass the strawberries through a sieve, and strain the lemon juice and the orange juice. Strain the syrup as well, and then add it to the other ingredients. Blend everything together and pour the mixture into the gelato maker. This recipe serves eight people.

3) Biscuit gelato:

Make a custard with 140 grams of water

50 grams of sugar

4 egg yolks

a dash of vanilla

Put the custard on the fire, stirring constantly, and when it begins to coat the spoon, remove it from the flame and whip it with a whisk. If it takes too long to fluff up, put the basin on ice, then pour in little by little two sheets of isinglass dissolved on the fire in a little water. Once it has fluffed up, fold in 150 grams of whipped cream and pour the mixture into a mould made especially for ice cream or in a saucepan or a copper bowl provide that it has a lid. Freeze for at least three hours between thick layers of ice and salt. This recipe serves 7-8 people and is a dish sure to please.

Contadino Proverbs relating to Food

Here follow some Tuscan contadino proverbs from a nineteenth-century collection. All relate to food.

1.      Buon vino fa buon sangue: good wine gives good blood

2.      Chi ha un buon orto ha un buon porco: who has a good kitchen garden has a good pig

3.      Cucina senza sale, credenza senza pane, cantina senza vino, si fa un mal mattino: kitchen without salt, table without bread, cellar without wine: the day begins badly…

4.      I troppi cuochi guastano la cucina: too many cooks ruin the kitchen

5.      Il mangiare insegna il bere: the food decides the drink

6.      Il pane degli altri è salato: the bread of others is always salted

7.      Il riso nasce nell’acqua, e ha da morire nel vino: rice is born in water and must die in wine

8.      Il vino al sapore, il pane al colore: wine by flavour, bread by colour

9.      Il vino è la poppa de’ vecchi: wine is the breast of the old

10.  La pentola è la pace di casa: In the pan is the peace of a house

11.  Pane finché dura, ma il vino a misura: eat bread while there is any, but drink wine in rations

12.  Più lungo d’un dì senza pane: longer than a day without bread

13.  Più pro fa il pane asciutto a casa sua, che l’arrosto a casa d’altri: better eat dry bread at home than roast meat in the house of others

14.  Quel che non ammazza, ingrassa: what doesn’t kill you will make you fat.

15.  Si deve mangiar per vivere, non vivere per mangiare: you should eat to live, not live to eat

16.  Vin battezato non vale un fiato: baptised wine isn’t worth a breath of air

17.  Vin che salti, pan che canti, formaggio che pianga: May the wine jump, the bread sing and the cheese weep…

18.  Zucchero non guastò mai vivanda: sugar never ruins any food.

19.  A peasant only eats a chicken when he or the chicken are ill.

The Turin phylloxera council: ideas as to the phylloxera and rules for watching the vineyards

An important branch of the produce of the nation, the cultivation of the vine, has been seriously and continually threatened from the moment when the Phylloxera appeared in Italy. We have now in our midst the enemy of the vine who before was at our doors, and although warned by authorities on the subject to hold ourselves in readiness for so sinister a visit, yet the fear when once awakened is not slight. Happily, however, our present position is much more favourable than was that of France, for that nation remained in ignorance of the gravity of the danger from 1863, the year in which the damage due to the Phylloxera became apparent in the department of the Gard, until 1868, when the illustrious Planchon discovered the evil and studied the characteristics of the destructive insect. During this period the cultivation of the French vine continued, and the evil spread with rapid strides. But we, knowing the danger, shall be able in great part to avoid it. Moreover, France had not ready at hand powerful antidotes such as are now known, and later on she awoke to the necessity of destroying the original centres of infection. To this must be added the facts that much of our vine cultivation is considerably more scattered than in France, and that Italy having to fight against Phylloxera finds herself in a more favourable position, being abundantly supplied with American vines, which arc known to resist the disease. The Italian Government proceeded at once with the most efficacious means that science and the practical experience of neighbouring countries could suggest, and as far as lay in its power, to destroy the original centres of infection in various parts as they became apparent, and it will proceed, we hope, in the same way to destroy other centres as they continue to become apparent; and so, inch by inch, the ground will be contested with the destroying insect, and our vine culture will be for several years safe from the terrible scourge, giving us time to prepare ourselves for the greater damages against which we may have to bear up in the future, and saving from serious and unlooked for financial confusion those districts in which the vine is the principal, and in some of them the single resource. To effect this the Government alone will not suffice – the assistance of private cultivators is required; each ought to watch his own vineyards, and be able to discover at once doubtful cases of an invasion of Phylloxera, and then to continue a careful inspection. To the cultivators of the vine in the associated provinces we therefore offer these short practical instructions, forming a summary of the gist of information which they ought not to ignore.

What is known of the Insect; its different stages and ways of multiplying itself. The Phylloxera or vine louse is a small insect similar to the grubs which live on the tender buds of the rose, the peach, &c., and like them nourishes itself by means of a sucker, which it attaches to the vegetable tissue, and thus absorbs the nourishing juice of the plant. It was introduced into Europe from North America, where it lives upon the vines of that country, which, owing to the structure of their roots, offer a greater or less degree of resistance to the enemy. The Phylloxera can live on the leaves of the American vine, and produces nut-galls, and then it takes the name of ‘galli-cola’; ‘but on the European or home-grown vines it lives generally on the roots, which it damages or alters in a peculiar way, and then it goes by the name of Phylloxera ‘radicicola’. Let us then give our special attention to the Phylloxera which lives upon the roots, that being the form of the disease which is of the greatest interest to us, inasmuch as it is that which injures our vines. (1) In the spring there issues from an egg, deposited in the previous autumn at the foot of the vine, where it has passed the winter, a very small insect, which travels underground to the end of the most delicate roots, and there nourishes itself by sucking the sap from the vine. It increases in size, changing its skin three or four times (in the same way as the silk-worm during its periods of sleep), and develops into a female without wings, able when full grown to deposit eggs of her own free will. The eggs, a few days after being deposited, open, and the young are born, forming small colonies round the mothers. The young nourish themselves, grow, change their skins, and become, in their turn, so many adult females, able to deposit new fecund eggs. Each female can, between the spring and the autumn, produce from 8 to 10 families in succession, each consisting of from 30 to 40 eggs, so that from a single egg, supposing that all the insects born should continue to live, there would be at the end of the year a production of several thousands of millions. (2) Some of the females above-mentioned pass in the month of July or August into the chrysalis state (like the silk-worm when in the cocoon), and after some time they change their skins, issue from the earth with wings, and aided by the wind, they fly to a greater or less distance, and deposit four or six eggs on the under-side of the leaves of the vines. (3) Some of these eggs are of a larger size, and become female insects without wings; others are smaller and become males without wings, hatching in a few days. Insects of this breed, a sex distinct by itself, do not feed upon the vine, but are destined for breeding only. The male dies after a short time. The female deposits a single egg on the stem of the vine underneath the bark, and afterwards dies too. It is from this egg which passes through the winter, and is not hatched until the following spring, that our biology of the insect begins. (4) ‘We have said that of the females found on the roots all do not develop wings; some in fact at the end of the autumn cease to nourish themselves, retire from active life, pass the winter motionless on the roots, and are said to be ‘hibernating’. On the arrival of spring they take a new lease of life, and continue the process of development. For the sake of brevity let us cease to point out further distinctions not required for the object which these short instructions have in view.

Damage done to the vines by the ‘root’ Phylloxera (radicicola), and how it extends. The Phylloxera on the extremities of the roots produces a special and very characteristic kind of swelling which continues to change, or rather to rot, and the vine no longer able to nourish itself, dies. During the first year the Phylloxera is generally found on the most slender roots; afterwards it is found on the ramifications of the roots next in slenderness, and also on the thickest, and on that part of the stem which is under the soil, and it remains there until the vine dies. The Phylloxera then leaves it, crossing the cracks in the soil by itself, and proceeds to other neighbouring vines, where it finds new nourishment, and thus it is that the evil is spread ‘by diffusion’: it spread as a spot of oil upon paper, and is called the Phylloxera ‘spot’. Then, meanwhile, the vines which are, as it were, in the centre of the spot sicken, sprout less, remain stunted, and in the vineyard have a depressed and drooping appearance. This becomes more apparent when the stems of the vines are near each other. But the disease may be spread to a distance by means of  dissemination,” creating new centres of infection, either by means of the flying insect, or through the agency of man himself, who carries the Phylloxera which lives on the roots, from one place to another to great distances, on plants or some other object coming from an infected vineyard.

How the presence of the Phylloxera can be detected in a vineyard. During the first year of the disease the vine gives few or no signs of deterioration; but when the roots are laid bare distinct swellings or knottings are discernible at the extremities of the most minute of the roots, swellings so characteristic of the disease as to be recognizable by a peasant himself when once seen. During the second year, if the vine is strong, it makes an effort to put forth new roots, tender or capillary, but as soon as the Phylloxera gets upon these, death is inevitable, and the vine gives external signs of dying away either in the spring or in the summer. In the third or fourth year the vine generally dies. In the second or third year the ‘spot’ begins to be apparent in the vineyard if the vines are a slight distance apart, and the drooping or ‘Phylloxera depression’ which we pointed out above, in other words the dying away and the disease of the vines, proceeds in the direction of the lines if these are some distance apart. These facts, however, are influenced by the climate, by the nature of the soil, and by the strength of the vines, as, for example, in the neighbourhood of Pallanza the deterioration of the infected vines was but little apparent, owing to the relatively greater power of resistance possessed by the Isabella vines cultivated there, as compared with the European vine cultivated elsewhere.

To resume, we have:

External characteristics.

Backwardness in sprouting.

Leaves of a yellowish colour, and of a size below the average.

Budding stage of less than average duration.

Grape matured with difficulty.

It is worthy of remark, however, that similar symptoms are sometimes due to other diseases produced by cryptogamy, but with careful inspection these are easily to be distinguished. Nevertheless the presence of other diseases does not exclude the possibility of the existence of Phylloxera. Less easy of detection is the winter egg on the stem under the bark, and the eggs deposited in the autumn by the winged Phylloxera on the underside of the leaves.

Characteristics of the roots. The characteristics of the roots are much more important and easy to recognise.

(a). A swelling of the slender roots, the capillary, especially during the first year of the disease. During the first formation they are of a yellowish orange colour, but afterwards they grow black, and then rot towards the end of autumn, and become loss apparent.

(b). The ‘root’ Phylloxera resembles fine grains of yellow sand, visible to the naked eye of an expert, but more so with a lens. As winter approaches the ‘root’ Phylloxera passes to the ‘hibernating’ stage, grows darker in colour, and consequently becomes less apparent. They are no longer found on the roots near the surface, but penetrate deeper into the soil to escape from the cold. It is hardly necessary to add that the Phylloxera is not found on dead vines, since they would find there no nourishment, and they are rarely found on those that are dying away.

Steps to be taken by the cultivator of vines to avoid the introduction of the Phylloxera into his vineyards. To take no plant, no matter what, which comes from a place infected or under suspicion, a thing moreover prohibited by law. To confine himself to increasing the number of the local vines.

How to discover the presence or suspicions signs of the Phylloxera. Inspect, here and there, in different parts of the vineyards the roots of some of the plants, with a view to acquiring a thorough knowledge of the construction of the sound roots in their normal condition, and the power of distinguishing them as occasion requires from those which show the swelling characteristic of the Phylloxera. It will be sufficient, in order that the lower parts of the roots of the vines may not be injured by the inspection, to examine them with a hoe, at one side at the feet until the first crowns of the roots are reached; this during the summer, but during the autumn and the winter the examination must be carried deeper below the surface. The following must especially be visited: Vines that are dying away or sickening, or that are in the neighbourhood of vines that are dying away, vines that are purchased away from the estate, and vines in gardens where ornamental vegetation exists. In cases of suspected Phylloxera the local authorities should be at once informed, and specimens of the roots under suspicion, both of the slender and of the thicker kinds, should be gathered from different vines. These roots should be placed in a tin box with a closely fitting lid, and a ticket should be attached to the box giving the names of the locality and of the proprietor of the vineyard. When reasonable suspicion of Phylloxera exists, the authorities will provide for the examination of the roots, and will have the vineyards inspected by the persons appointed for the purpose.

This short pamphlet, in which we proposed to set forth the essential points which the practical cultivator of the vine ought to know, has no other object than to inspire the reader with a desire to make himself better acquainted with a subject of such great importance. Among the many publications worth consulting, we especially recommend the official report of the Ministry of Agriculture, No. 11, ‘Information and Directions as regards the diseases of the vine louse and of the Phylloxera.’ In this little work are reproduced two woodcuts showing 1. The Phylloxera in the egg, lava, chrysalis and winged insect stages. 2. The leaves of the American vine with the nut-galls. 3. The Phylloxera on the vine roots. 4. The various characteristic swellings of the capillary roots. These woodcuts are owed to the courtesy of Signor Franceschini, the Government Phylloxera Commissioner for the province of Milan, and already form a part of his work on the Phylloxera.

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Posted October 20, 2010 by zachmon

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