Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
The True Story Of Pasta
How Pasta Saved The Roman Empire
The popular belief that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy around the year 1295 on the return from his historic journey to Cathay i.e. China is sheer poppycock! This fantasy was most likely circulated by a 20th century advertising campaign to get Americans to buy more pasta. The truth is that in 1154, almost 150 years prior to the travels of Marco, there was a written reference to pasta in Sicily, while the actual use of pasta as a food staple dates to centuries earlier, in Rome.
In fact, according to noted Italian cuisine author Stefano Milioni, the consumption of pasta in Italy dates to the days of the Caesars. When Rome was little more then a town of 100,000, keeping the inhabitants fed was relatively easy in fact they could be considered locavores, eating what was readably available from nearby gardens and farms. During that time, the mixing of wheat flour and water to create dough was a delicacy reserved for the aristocracy and it was baked (not boiled) to produce an unleavened bread -- possibly an influence derived from the Jewish practice of eating Matzos or unleavened bread in the Roman occupied territory of Palestine. Baked pasta has little relationship to our modern pasta but it clearly shows the process of mixing flour and water to create a food was practiced in the kitchens of ancient Rome, not a transplant from the Orient.
Within the next 100 years, the population of Rome exploded to one and a half million, and as Imperial Rome grew, keeping the masses fed became crucial. For as everyone knows, a hungry populous leads to unrest and eventual revolution… bread (or pasta) and circuses was the answer. The solution was to import great quantities of wheat from North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Syria, and Spain, which was stored in huge silos. During the 1st to the 4th century, the grain was distributed to the poor in a grand show of Imperial beneficence, thereby gaining loyalty through full stomachs. Durum wheat flour was mixed with water, rolled into sheets, cut into simple long strips (called maccheroni) boiled, and consumed in a rather uncouth and messy way with the hands. In today’s world we would call this fresh pasta, as opposed to the more familiar dried pasta.
By that time, the aristocracy had moved on from making pasta in their kitchens to purchasing from vendors. Their culinary needs (for pasta) were catered to by entrepreneurial pasta-makers that fashioned a variety of shapes, sometimes stuffed with meat, vegetables or cheese and sold fresh to the rich to be boiled and eaten as a side dish.
But all did not go as well for the great unwashed, as the silos became contaminated by parasites, mold, and insects, and vast quantities of wheat had to be dumped into the River Tiber. To save the day -- and the Roman Empire -- pasta was rolled out in sheets, cut, and dried in the sun; contrary to the previously eaten fresh pasta which could spoil, the dried pasta lasted practically indefinitely.
Of course saving the Roman Empire is not the end of the story of Pasta!
Fast forward to the 17th century when the tomato was introduced to Europe by the Spanish. Gold was far from the only treasure the Spanish brought back from their exploration/colonization of the “New World”. At first the tomato was thought to be a poisonous fruit but some enterprising cook in Sicily took to throwing tomatoes into the water used to boil pasta and voila tomato sauce was born. This discovery changed everything. Before pasta had been served “neat” or mixed with a bit of grated cheese and clumsily eaten with the hands. Now bolstered by the discovery of the primitive implement “the fork” pasta could be eaten dressed, in any number of ways.
From its lowly origin, pasta has become the darling of food lovers the world over. With over 300 designs, many fashioned to go with a favorite dressing, its no wonder the average Italian consumes over sixty pounds per person, per year. Americans are far behind, consuming a measly twenty pounds per person, per year… seems the advertising campaign worked since the American love of pasta is only surpassed by that of Italy’s.
An abundant clean fresh water supply is one of the prime ingredients in the production of quality pasta, the other is Durum wheat which has been purified and refined into Semolina flour. It is recommended to cook pasta in salted water since it is traditionally produced without any additives. Use a heaping tablespoon of sea or kosher salt for every pound of pasta and do not add the pasta until the water is at a rapid boil… AND never break the long strands in half but let the spaghetti sink into the boiling water.
Italians prefer their pasta al dente as a first course or side dish… Americans are not there yet, many preferring pasta well cooked, and often eaten as a main course. With the advent of the healthy eating culture of 21st century America, there are many more types of pasta to choose from; some made with other than flour for those gluten intolerant consumers and some made from legumes or other vegetables for those suffering from other dietary restrictions or preferences.
There are literally endless inventive sauces that include the use of vegetables, meat, seafood, tomato sauce, or any combination of ingredients. One of my favorites is colossal-size shrimps quickly sautéed with garlic, ginger, shallots, dried Italian herbs, and deglazed with white wine and fresh lemon juice and poured over fresh linguini. I also love diced Pancetta sautéed with shallots, garlic and herbs (fresh or dried) and a green vegetable such as broccoli or asparagus. Immediately pour the hot mix over the pasta of your choice - I prefer Rigatoni or Bow Ties - and top with a goodly amount of either goat cheese or feta which melts in to complete the creamy dressing.
Manos loves a combination of chopped meats (lamb, veal, pork) sautéed with onions, garlic, pepper (capsicum) oregano, ground cinnamon (he is after all Greek) and tomato paste diluted in water over perciatelli or bucatini dried pasta.
Regardless, any way you care to dress pasta or any shape or composition you chose to buy… fresh or dried… it still is one of the most satisfying and delicious dishes and to the Italians I tip my hat for introducing pasta to our world-wide culinary culture.
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