Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Tag

Comment: how old is the Marco Polo myth?   Leave a comment

We have looked previously at Marco Polo’s writing, which shows emphatically that he did not bring pasta from China to Italy. We have looked too at two twentieth century sources that suggest that he did: an advertising campaign and a film.

But how old is the Marco Polo myth? There follows an extract from one of the first Italian cook books in English by Dorothy Daly (1900) who published with Spring in the UK.

And why, so far, no word of pasta, that ever present, ubiquitous Italian dish? For the reason that Pasta, whatever it may be to-day, is said not originally to have been a native of the country, but is alleged to be one of the many wonders brought home by the 13th century explorer, Marco Polo, from his travels in China. Nevertheless, although Pasta, in its many shapes and forms, may not have started off as a true native of Italy, to-day it seems as much a part of the country as an operatic tenor, and anyone wanting to present a truly Italian meal must perforce learn a few of the ways of preparing and cooking Pasta…

The myth seems to be well established here, which begs the question: where and when did it originate? Was it an American or even a British invention? SY

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Posted January 13, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Pasta and St Lawrence   Leave a comment

The following comment comes from a book describing the experience of an American resident in Florence c. 1890.

On the 10th of August Florence celebrates the Festa of San Lorenzo, and according to custom the weather should be excessively hot. ‘As hot as the day of San Lorenzo’, is a saying generally accepted, the sun’s rays possibly suggesting the glowing coals and gridiron of the noble youth’s martyrdom. Seasons may vary south of the Alps, and in Tuscany one summer is no guide for another. Why should the breeze be cool, with a hint of hail recently fallen on the heights, in its breath that enters the Florence Window, rendering agreeable at any hour of the day a ramble across the Via dei Pucci to the Via Cavour, in response to the invitation of San Lorenzo’s bells? The Riccardi Palace is magnificent in stately proportions of massive stone, barred casement, and great iron rings to hold the torches and standards of the Middle Ages, in the light of the summer morning.

Venders of small wares, brooms, lamps, bird-cages, occupy the stone bench flanking the spacious structure. There is an unwonted crowd, moving of vehicles, and perceptible hum of voices in all of the streets leading to the Piazza of San Lorenzo; and still the bell clangs out above other sounds. We are reminded that it is the festival of the shops selling pasta; and each is made as attractive in decoration of green garlands, tinsel ornaments, and little flags as the skill and pecuniary resources of the shop-keeper can render them.

In the midst the pasta is temptingly displayed, the hard red grain of wheat crushed, prepared, and manipulated into manifold shapes by generations of workers at Naples, Genoa, or Bologna. Here the long and apparently brittle pipes of macaroni are built into gigantic pyramids of interlacing sticks in a window, flanked by the short, tough stems known as padre nostra; there the more delicate white nastrini (‘ribbons’), vermieelli, and capellini – the latter as finely spun as hairs – are arranged in nests and festoons on a shelf, while heaps of tiny golden grains, occhi (‘eyes’), and transparent crescents or stars for soup are piled in bags around the entire interior.

The Italian gourmet will not fail to note the capelli (‘hats’), the small disks of paste to be filled with minced fowl or veal, like Lilliputian patties gently stewed in broth, and served with some subtle flavor of nutmeg, in one of the Case gastronomiche of the Via Porta Rossa, which are ever redolent of ham and sausage. Great wheels of golden Milan butter, the flask of oil, and the odorous Parmesan cheese at hand must additionally tempt a people of a largely farinaceous diet like the Florentines, in such a display. In the Borgo San Lorenzo rises a temple of pasta of fair and accurate architectural proportions, the proprietor of the shop beaming in an obscure perspective of triumphal arches, between columns of twisted vermicelli and with a cupola roof of solid paste overhead. Why is macaroni dedicated to Saint Lawrence by ancient Florence? Is a larger quantity of the nutritious article of food consumed by the town on this day than on any other in the calendar of the year? Was the first Italian who strung the threads in festoons to dry in the air christened Lorenzo? Nobody pauses to answer, and the bells clang on, chanting their own refrain of higher thoughts than mere aliment for the perishing body of man.

Posted December 18, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Bober – Art, Culture and Cuisine   Leave a comment

Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy (Phyllis Pray Bober). Bober’s overriding theory – that there is a link between cooking and more generalised cultural trends – can politely go stew. It is presumably right though it is difficult to demonstrate for many of the periods that the author is dealing with. However, this book, which brings together her musings on food from prehistory to the late Gothic style, makes for one of the best general introductions  to food history: and all written by a wise, opinionated and witty scholar whose love affair with food began in her mother’s kitchen in the entre-duex-guerres and continued in the 1960s at NYU with her food recreation workshops. Italian content includes a remarkable rant on the origins of pasta and the question of continuity from Roman to modern Italian cooking. Her final promise to write ‘in a subsequent volume…’ was not, unfortunately, kept. Death intervened in 2002. (University of Chicago 2002). SY

Posted December 1, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Phyllis Pray Bober on the Origins of Pasta   Leave a comment

Phyllis Pray Bober (obit 2002) wrote one of the most idiosnycratic and exciting food history books of recent years with her Art, Culture and Cuisine (Chicago 1999), which touches extensively on Italian cuisine, ancient and medieval. PPB attempted the impossible in her pages – the integration of artistic styles with cooking movements. Truly ambitious stuff!

The book has not had the success it richly deserved: we hope that this plug will sell a couple more copies.

This extract – concerning the origin of pasta – gives a flavour of her work. PPB favoured the Greek invention of pasta: but this depends on the priority of the Greek pasta words over the Arabic pasta words, something that has still not been fully established.

We give here the text without footnotes so as not to anger the gods of copyright.

‘The point has come to consider the vexed question of ancient pasta. Today at least there is enough responsible writing on food history to have laid to rest a persistent fable that Marco Polo brought noodles back from China, although his only surprise at ‘pasta’ (not at a loss for the word) he met on his trip was encountering noodles made not of flour but of breadfruit growing on trees.

There are two schools of scholarly thought concerning the beginnings of simple (i.e., flat varieties, not extruded hollow types) pasta-making. One follows an Arabist, Andrew Watson, who argues that it was the Arabs who invented pasta, introducing what has become the national dish to Sicily and South Italy in their conquests of the ninth century A.D. The Arabs certainly did bring reformed methods of farming to North Africa and Europe, as well as many new products, including sugar cane, eggplants, spinach, and a broad range of citrus fruits to supplement the citrons known in antiquity from Persia. But many scholars, myself among them, argue that noodles and lasagne, whoever invented their first (inevitable?) preparation of flour and water, sometimes with added egg or other ingredients, were already well known to Greeks and Romans. Our case has been enormously advanced by modern paleobotanical research which proves that durum wheat, the gluten-rich, ‘heavy’ wheat required for good pasta, was grown from an early date and is one of the reasons that much Greek and Roman bread was very dense. It was durum wheat that made Greek semidalis – semolina. For Watson, durum wheat was not an important crop before the medieval period.

Even so, the only widely read author on cookery outside the academic community who seems to have the right explanation is Patience Gray; in Honey from a Weed she announced the discovery of those who live in Apulia and other Italian provinces once the heartland of Magna Grecia (one I made for myself in May 1995) of the etymological proof needed to supplement botanical evidence. This involves two ancient Greek words: laganon, plural lagana; and itrion, itria. When one learns that the Arabic word itrijah, found in Aramic and Hebrew cognates, means ‘noodle’, it is difficult not to see a derivation from Greek, originally connoting ‘ribbon’. In the Salentine peninsula and the region around Taranto, the dialect preserves lagana for the rolled out square of dough used by housewives to be cut into pasta, and tria (itria) survives in the local dish, tagliatelle, cooked just as in ancient Greece with chickpeas and wild arugula (rocket). Part of the pasta is preserved in browned in oil in final assembly of the speciality as in a recipe preserved in Athenaeus (XVI, 647e) that incorporates lettuce juice to make green pasta.

The ‘waters’ of the pasta invention controversy were somewhat muddied by one Italian archaeologist who supplemented linguistic evidence with that of an artefact represented in an Etruscan tomb. The rock-cut supports of the Tomba dei rilievei at Cervetri are decorated with with reliefs of objects of all kinds, some for warfare, others of household equipment. One seemed to be an ancient spianatoia, a board for rolling out pasta, complete with a little bag of extra flour hanging from one handle. Alas, definitive study of the reliefs has now identified the object as a gaming board precisely like one shown on an Etruscan mirror being used by two competing Greek heroes. This does not negate Etruscan knowledge of pasta, however, and at least one museum devoted to history of the genre holds that they even rolled flat noodles about metal needles to fashion macaroni (much as medieval and Renaissance cooks would anticipate extruded manufacture of spaghetti at a later date).

A word on the uses of pasta by Greeks and Romans. The ‘ribbons’ as we met them earlier in the mattye were seemingly partially dried and broken up to add to stewed dishes as a form of thickening. And the chickpeas with tria and greens I so relished in Apulia as atavistic Western Greek fare are matched by Horace’s supper dish of chickpeas with leeks and lagani. (116-117)

Posted November 30, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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History: Spaghetti-eating competitions   Leave a comment

A couple of curious videos, one from 1952 and the other undated. Two important questions. (i) When did this kind of spaghetti eating competition begin? And (ii) is the final cat fight in the first clip genuine? SY


Posted November 10, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Futurist Cooking in the Tribune   Leave a comment

The following is an article from the Chigago Tribune (1930) announcing a futurist manifesto on food, a manifesto which would lead to the opening of futurist restaurants in Italy. Enjoy the racy Anglo-Saxon take.

Marinetti, father of Futurist art, literature and drama, has just issued from Rome a manifesto  launching Futurist cooking, according to word received yesterday from Paris. Practically everything connected with the traditional pleasures of the gourmet will be swept away.

No more spaghetti for the Italians.

No more knives and forks.

No more after dinner speeches will be tolerated by the new cult.

Details of the manifesto, published in the Comoedia, give the principal feature of the new cuisine as a rapid succession of dishes which contain but one mouthful or even a fraction of a mouthful.

In fact, in the ideal Futuristic meal, several dishes will be passed beneath the nose of the diner in order to excite his curiosity or to provide a suitable contrast, and such supplementary courses will not be eaten at all.

‘Since everything in modern civilisation tends towards elimination of weight and increased speed, the cooking of the future must be conform to the ends of evolution. The first step would be the elimination of edible pastes [i.e. pasta?] from the diet of the Italians’, Marinetti writes.

Modern science will be employed in the preparation of sauces and a device similar to litmus paper will be used in a futuristic kitchen in order to determine the proper degree of acidity or alkalinity  in any given sauce.

Music will be banished from the table except in rare instances when it will be used to sustain the mood of a former course until the next can be served.

The new futuristic meal will permit a literary influence to pervade the dining-room, for with ideal rapid service, by means of a single successive mouthfuls, an experience such as a love affair or a journey may be suggested.

Among the new kitchen and dining-room instruments suggested by Marinetti is an ‘ozonizer’ which will give to liquids the taste and perfume of the ozone, also ultra violet lamps to render certain chemicals in the cooking more active.

Also certain dishes will be cooked under high pressure, in order to vary the effects of the heat.

Electrolysis will also be used to decompose sugar and other extracts.

As a model for the presentation of a futuristic meal, M. Marinetti calls attention to a futuristic painting of a synthetic landscape made up of food stuffs by Fillìa. The landscape is composed of a roast of veal, stuffed with eleven kinds of vegetables, placed vertically upon a plate and crowned with honey.

This is one of the meals which, under the new system could not be attacked with a knife and fork and cut into haphazard sections before being eaten.

Besides the abolition of macaroni, Marinetti advocates doing away with ordinary condiments now in use, and a consistent lightening of weight and reduction of volume of food stuffs. The futurist leader also pleads for discontinuance of eating for pleasure.

For ordinary daily nourishment he recommends scientific nourishment by means of pills and powders, so that when a real banquet is spread it may be appreciated aesthetically.

Posted November 2, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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History: The Great Spaghetti Hoax of 1957   Leave a comment

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 youtube video

Posted October 26, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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