Nothing says Italy like its food, and nothing says Italian food like pasta. Wherever Italians have immigrated they have brought their pasta and so today it is basically an international staple. Unlike other ubiquitous Italian foods like pizza and tomato sauce, which have a fairly recent history pasta may indeed have a much older pedigree going back hundreds if not thousands of years. To begin to unravel the long an often complex world of pasta we have to look at its origins and some of the myths surrounding this now worldwide food.
Many schoolchildren were taught that the Venetian merchant Marco Polo brought back pasta from his journeys in China. Another version states that Polo discovery was actually a rediscovery of a foodstuff that was once popular in Italy in Etruscan and Roman times. Well Marco Polo might have done amazing things on his journey but bringing pasta to Italy was not one of them, it was already there in Polo's time. There is some evidence of an Etrusco-Roman noodle made from the same durum wheat as modern pasta called "lagane" (origin of the modern word for lasagna). However this food, first mentioned in the 1st century AD was not boiled like pasta, it was cooked in an oven. Therefore ancient lagane had some similarities, but cannot be considered pasta. The next culinary leap in the history of pasta would take place a few centuries later.
Like so much of southern Italian life, the Arab invasions of the 8th century heavily influenced the regional cuisine and is the most accepted theory for the introduction of pasta. The dried noodle-like product they introduced to Sicily is most likely the origins of dried pasta and was being produced in great quantities in Palermo at this time. The modern word "macaroni" derives from the Sicilian term for making dough forcefully, as early pasta making was often a laborious daylong process. How it was served is not truly known but many Sicilian pasta recipes still include other Arab gastronomic introductions such as raisins and spices like cinnamon. This early pasta was an ideal staple for Sicily and it easily spread to the mainland since durum wheat thrives in Italy's climate. Italy is still a major producer of this hard wheat, used to make the all-important semolina flour.
By the 1300's dried pasta was very popular for its nutrition and long shelf life, making it ideal for long ship voyages. Pasta made it around the globe during the voyages of discovery a century later. By that time different shapes of pasta have appeared and new technology made pasta easier to make. With these innovations pasta truly became a part of Italian life. However the next big advancement in the history of pasta would not come until the 19th century when pasta met tomatoes.
Although tomatoes were brought back to Europe shortly after their discovery in the New World, it took a long time for the plant to be considered edible. In fact tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and rumors of tomatoes being poisonous continued in parts of Europe and its colonies until the mid 19th century. Therefore it was not until 1839 that the first pasta recipe with tomatoes was documented. However shortly thereafter tomatoes took hold, especially in the south of Italy. The rest of course is delicious history.
Pasta today... it is estimated that Italians eat over sixty pounds of pasta per person, per year easily beating Americans, who eat about twenty pounds per person. This love of pasta in Italy far outstrips the large durum wheat production of the country; therefore Italy must import most of the wheat it uses for pasta. Today pasta is everywhere and can be found in dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca) varieties depending on what the recipes call for. The main problem with pasta today is the use of mass production to fill a huge worldwide demand. And while pasta is made everywhere the product from Italy keeps to time-tested production methods that create a superior pasta.
Copyright 2011 Christine's Pantry. All rights reserved.
1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 (14.5oz) can Italian diced tomatoes
2 (8 oz) cans tomato sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 heaping teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
9 lasagna noodles
extra virgin olive oil, just enough to cover bottom of pan
Cook noodles according to package directions. In large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. Add ground beef, onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce salt and pepper. Cook until no longer pink, drain excess grease and reduce heat. Then add diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, basil, oregano. Once noodles are cooked, drain well. In a 13 x9 baking pan, add little meat sauce, making sure to cover bottom of pan, then add 3 noodles on top of meat sauce. Making sure not to overlap noodles. Spread meat sauce over noodles, then add Parmesan and Mozzarella. Repeat layers, ending in Mozzarella. Place pan under broiler, until cheese melts and bubbly. Enjoy!