miércoles, 23 de abril de 2014

The History of Pasta

It's strange to think that once upon a time there were no pasta around us. It's just weird to think not to have spaghetti in our kitchens, that also something so universal has a story, has a birth. But, like tomatoes or potatoes, there has been an era before pasta! Pasta is a simple and genial creation that can be summed up like this: "different shape creates different taste". Is infact a nonsense to consider the pasta without his mate, the tomato sauce, or, in italian, the "sugo". The sauces can be more or less liquid, or dense, with meat or fish, they can have different textures and so on. And this is the reason for the thousand different types and shapes of pasta, to better keep the sauce and its flavour. Almost every single town has his own type, at least in the central and southern Italy. The marriage between the sauce and pasta has been developed throughout centuries, often using different local gastronomical excellences. According to a study, exists at least 563 different kinds of pasta.

The astonishing variety of Tagliatelle

One could argue that from the thousands kinds and different shapes of local pasta and its related "pasta chauvinism" begun the unique italian passion for the creativity and the design. And, by the way, how was created pasta?
In XIX century pasta became a luxury everyone could afford

According the legend, Marco Polo would have brought spaghetti from his legendary travel to China. But there are many doubts about this romantic narration. There are traces of pasta in Western World even before Marco Polo.
For example, Cicero used to eat a dish called Làgana. The Laganum was a sort of flat pasta very similar (also in the name) to our lasagna. It is interesting to notice that even two thousand years after Cicero, in some parts of Italy lasagna are still called lagana! Someone thinks that the whole Marco Polo legend was created by the Macaroni Journal (a italo-american review) to promote a dish yet not so well known in America.

But moving from legends to history, the actual origin of pasta is far from being
perfectly known. For example we know that the Greeks used to ate pasta, and so did the Etruscans. It is thought that pasta is a dish that grew together with the civilizations of Man along his expansion throughout Eurasia. When Man started to cultivate cereals and in the Neolithic started to create tools to mill cereals and then add water.
In the Middle Ages Italy, pasta was made like this

But beside this historical ride, we can say that the first traces of the pasta intended as we do in modern times is to be found around XIV century. During Middle Ages infact the pasta starts being boiled, and no longer put in an oven. There is a written document from that period, the "Liber de Coquina", that describes how to do the tagliatelle, from a neapolitan writer. In Italy we use to say "pastasciutta", rather than pasta, and that's because the dried pasta that we know today was created to last longer, probably by arabs that used it to eat when crossing the Sahara desert. In Sicily, that was then invaded by arabs, the water was abundant, and pasta started to be boiled rather than baked. The success was so great that many small shops started the commerce of this product. Other pasta shop then opened in the great portual cities, like Neaples and Genoa, then in Apulia and Tuscany and from there to the rest of Italy and the World.

Once that America was discovered and the tomato was brought here in Europe, pasta was ready to the final and most glorious step. In the previous centiries infact pasta was served with meat, meat sauces and cheeses (yes, the cheese always was there, we can immagine the Romans eating their pasta with Parmigianvs Reggianvs he he he!).

Around year 1500 were created in the small city of Gragnano, near Naples, the first artesanal "pastifici", or pasta ateliers, that back then were family-run. The Gragnano pasta, now legendary to gourmets, foodie, chefs and simple pasta lovers worldwide, is unique because of the particular climatological conditions of the small city, that's settled just above a valley, on the Monti Lattari mountains. In the baroque era, a crisis in the textile sector converted the vast majority of Gragnanese people to work in the "pastifici". Many watermills were then built to work the pasta in the valley below, more than thirty, that you can see still now in the so-called "Valle dei Mulini", or the "Mills valley".

Pasta left to dry in Via Roma, Gragnano's main street

After the Industrial Revolution, in the Eighteenth Century, were introduced in
today things have changed, but the taste is the same!
Gragnano modern and industrial machineries that lead to a bigger production and a smaller price, now finally everyone could afford some pasta from Gragnano! With the Unification of Italy in 1861, Gragnano started to export his delicious pasta also in the big cities of Central and Northern Italy, like Florence, Rome, Turin and Milan. To understand the importance of this small city, we can tell you that in year 1885 the railway that linked Gragnano and its pasta production with Naples (and so with the rest of Italy) was inaugurated by the King of Italy himself, Umberto I of Savoy and his wife, the famous Queen Margherita of Savoy (yes, the pizza Margherita was named after her).

Pasta di Gragnano is our favourite!

After a decline in the XX century, today Gragnano has rebirth as the "city of Pasta" par excellence. Today the city is the first pasta producer and pasta exporter in Italy. We can conclude or super tasty ride with the words of a myth of the neapolitan cultural world, a genial and ironical figure of the Italian Theater and Cinema: Antonio de Curtis, better known as Totò: "Se non è di Gragnano, desisti!", that can be translated as "If the pasta is not from Gragnano, give up!"

Greetings al dente!


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