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PASTA: MYTHS, SCIENCE AND MAGIC: a discourse on pasta in three courses.

Part One: Mythology. Folklore. And elephants.

Photo Credit: istock.

"Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti." Sophia Loren, Neapolitan

In 1860, leading The Expedition of the Thousand, General Giuseppe Garibaldi finally took Naples by force in his quest to unite Italy. He shared a groan of extreme frustration with his commanders : “It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unify Italy”.

And yet, in this prediction, the great man was wrong.

Pasta may indeed be Italy’s iconic food staple but, in fact, rather than unifying Italy, it does nothing but draw attention, not merely to regional differences but, indeed, to particular local characteristics.

In Orvieto, for instance, it is only on Christmas Eve that fettuccine is dressed with honey and walnuts and served as a sweet. A mere 150 km away in Norcia, home of the black truffles, penne is served with sausages and truffles in a lush creamy base.

Pasta can be short or long, handmade or extruded by machines. Sometimes it is stuffed, sometimes not. It can be swimming in a rich broth, pasta in brodo or dressed lightly in a sauce, pasta asciutta or it can be baked, pasta al forno. Pasta can be made from durum wheat or soft wheat flour, from semolina, with barley or buckwheat. It can be made with eggs, eggs and water and sometimes with a stream of oil and brilliant flavours for colour.

Photo Credit: Stephen English: Northern Exposure Tour. Pasta class at Salice Blu, Bellagio.

It can be filled or not. Some shapes are fanciful – angel’s hair, shells, butterflies, elbows and ears, while others are more pedestrian – literally in the case of Puglia’s chianche which are stepping stones or cenci, torn rags.

Pasta speaks to us about wealth and privilege – chicken livers, porcini and pancetta dress the rich egg fettuccini of Emilia Romagna and the golden tajarin of Piemonte made with up to a dozen eggs per kilo of flour. On the flip side, in Puglia, they eat orecchiette al grano arso. After the crop is harvested and burnt off, the poorer people collect any remaining wheat grains rather than allow them to be wasted. The colour is a burnt grey and the smokiness lingers in the shapes – it is surprisingly good with bitter broccoli di rape, sausage meat or burrata and fresh tomatoes.

Photo Credit: traditional orecchiette on the left. Orecchiette al grano arso on the right. (see next post for recipes.)

Things are changing very much in Italy - once upon a time in the south, pasta - whether a handful in soup or as a substantial first course - was eaten everyday. In the north, it was generally reserved for twice a week – always for pranzo, lunch, on Sundays and then on Wednesday or Thursday. Now in Italy, for reasons of health – high cholesterol from the sauces, the increasing popularity of low carb diets: or for reasons of fashion and variety, pasta is eaten less than it ever was.

In 1932, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leader of the Futurist Movement of the early half of the 20th Century wrote his Futurist Cookbook. Marinetti wanted to advocate cookery and dining as a moral and intellectual concept as he had done with art in his earlier book, The Futurist Manifesto. He thought, for instance, that pasta was responsible for Italian “sluggishness, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity, and neutralism”.

Photo credit: Amazon Books. Penguin Classic, trans. Suzanne Brill, available on Amazon.

In his rules for cooking, serving and eating of food, he was nothing if not comprehensive, going so far as calling for the abolition of the knife and fork which he thought inhibited ‘tactile enjoyment’. Indeed, many of his notions have been picked up by modern restaurateurs who have embraced ‘molecular gastronony’. Heston Blumenthal, for instance, has introduced some of his own dishes with perfumes that relate to the ingredients, made use of extra sensory distractions, such as music between courses and played with lighting. As Marinetti advocated and predicted, Blumenthal and Ferran Adria’, at the erstwhile, El Bulli, had a battery of scientific machines. Technology, Marinetti proposed, was the future for gastronomy. Marinetti wanted the diners’ curiosity and imagination to be piqued by the food and its presentation. I can imagine many happy conversations between Marinetti and Blumenthal.

Marinetti wanted the morsels – because he was revolted by huge volumes of food – to represent times of our lives: the end of a love affair, a visit to Asia. In this, I am reminded of a number of dishes by Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana in Modena: An Eel travelling up the Po; memories of a mortadella sandwich; the dropped lemon tart.

Photo credit: Stephen English. Osteria Francescana. Massimo Bottura's Eel travelling up the Po. A story on a plate.

But Marinetti’s particular ‘Italian’ admonitions regard the war on pasta, talking about politics at the table and failing to make the connection between what we eat and drink and how we act.

Above all, Marinetti loathed pasta. These ‘white worms’, eaten twice a day, did nothing for the state of the body or the economy of the country, since supplementary wheat has always been imported into Italy. The notion of eschewing pasta in favour of rice caused rioting in Italy – there were street protests in favour of pasta; treatises written in reply to the Futurists, supporting pasta’s value in the culture and economy of Italy; grown men came to blows in defence of pasta; discussions in parliament ensued. The status quo remained but the prestige of pasta was damaged in the fracas.

Had Marinetti not been a staunch Fascist and fervent supporter of Benito Mussolini one could read his Futurist Cookbook as an ‘over the top’, scathing and provocative satire of the serious ‘business’ of cooking and dining but his dubious politics lead me to believe his ‘revolution’ aimed to make food, not democratic and accessible, but rather an ‘intellectual’ exercise available to a select few. He wanted to create, “lithe, agile peoples who will be victorious” in the “next” war, he wanted people to take in “nutritional equivalents” – pills, potions and powders rather than actual food which would weigh them down.

It is an interesting irony that Marinetti wanted to abolish cutlery since the fork was introduced in polite Italian society to facilitate the eating of long strands of pasta. The pronged table fork, as opposed to one used in cooking, was first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and used in the Byzantine Empire and in Persia, modern day Iran, among the elite. Certainly by the 10th Century, the table fork was in common use in the Middle East.

Photo credit: Wikipedia: History of Forks. 8th C two pronged fork from Iran.

In Europe, the three pronged fork was common only in Italy due to the eating of long pasta. Indeed, it is widely known that Catherine de’ Medici’s entourage travelled with their own fork and spoon in an elaborate box, known as a cadena. Presumably, it was she who took the table fork to France as a 14 year old bride and from there it spread to the rest of Europe.

Photo credit: Wikipedia: History of Forks. The spaghetti fork with a winding mechanism. I have no words.

I am honestly perplexed at the trouble some people have eating spaghetti. It is messy. That’s the appeal. But all manner of ‘machines’ have been invented to assist the nervous twirler. I still have in my possession a single ‘spaghetti’ fork – I was given a set of 6 (four I have used as garden stakes for my herbs, the fifth is missing, perhaps impaled in a guest who talked about politics at the table). I was also given one with a battery – I threw it straight in the bin. No thoughts of ‘regifting’ crossed my mind. I have no intention of insulting my friends.

Photo Credit: I am ashamed to say, it's mine. You slide your fingers down the spiral shaft and the pasta twirls, as if by magic, around the tines, saving you hours of painstaking work.

It is quite impertinent to an Italian to have a spoon and a fork set out for a course of spaghetti. A child, perhaps, may need a spoon – a bit like training wheels on a bike, but an adult, never.

Photo Credit: Alberto Sordi, "An American in Rome."

('Che brutta figura!' RM)

Practice in the privacy of your dining room with only a few strands, cover your clothes with a capacious napkin and go for it. Strands will dangle, slurping is necessary, a dribble of sauce may remain on your chin. You’ve got a napkin, use it to wipe your mouth and to cover your clothes as Italians do, even in restaurants. And, in the end, if your sense of decorum is offended, eat one of the hundreds of other pasta shapes at your disposal – it is not a crime to avoid spaghetti, no, not even in Italy. (See the next post that deals with making pasta in various shapes and their particular sauces.)

And now, at the risk of losing friends, being ‘uninvited’ to parties and being shunned in the street, I need to be bossy and dictatorial.

When does one serve pasta?

Generally, a meal begins with an antipasto – this is something small before the meal. It is served ante, before the ‘pasto’, the Italian word for the meal, not ‘pasta’, the course. So it is never antipasta (correcting menus has made me unpopular in my own city). This tidbit that is served before the meal is usually an item that is bitter, acidic, salty or fatty – think, a few slices of sausage, an anchovy between two leaves of sage dipped in batter and then fried, fennel slices dipped in oil and then into grains of salt, olives, cubes of parmigiano. An antipasto is designed to stimulate the gastric juices and make you hungry, not fill you up. It is just like an aperitvo (see previous post, Bitter Sweet). I know you get the picture.

Next, is the first course. I primi consist of soups, pasta, rice, certain fish and vegetable dishes. And this is where pasta is served. Because it will be followed by another course: the saucing, size and richness of the first course is a major consideration.

Then we have the second course, il secondo, which is usually some protein – fish, meat, chicken or a substantial vegetable dish. It is served with a contorno – a side dish of fresh or cooked vegetables. Sometimes, but not always, il contorno is served on the same plate as the protein but more often, it is presented on a separate platter. Now, after the hot food, the salad is served. If you are not given a clean plate for the insalata, then eat as much of the hot second course as you can and help yourself to the salad. Do not, please, serve the salad with your pasta or with your hot second course. Please do not.

Then comes cheese and fruit and much later with the coffee something sweet but not necessarily dessert as we know it.

Who has notice the subtle distinction here in the order of courses? There is not an entree (small), a main course (larger) and a creamy dessert. There is a first course: when my mother made her legendary lasagna it would be served as a first course (but it would be our ‘main course’). We would demand, and she would oblige, a big serving (it had, after all, taken her two days to make it). Naturally, we would not be served a big secondo. There might be meatballs or meat from the sugo, or a small, crumbed chicken breast served with green beans and later, a restorative salad.

A big meal like this would end with cheese and fruit or fennel slices if they were in season. Much later, with coffee, we might consider an amaretto biscuit, unless it was a birthday or other celebration and cake was mandatory.

Obviously, living in Australia our lives are different, we forge new ways of doing things. We are rule breakers and proud of it. But, it is wise to know the origins and the gastronomy behind why the Italians eat what they eat. But, even as important, how they eat. Then, if we think we know better, by all means we can break the rules.

I am not expecting dinner invitations anytime soon.

Photo Credit: istock. It is obligatory at this point to address the elephant in the dining room, though perhaps it is not entirely necessary in this day and age.

By now, everyone knows that pasta was not brought to Italy by Marco Polo from China. But let’s review the evidence just in case there is a last remaining sceptic.

I have not read the 13th-century travelogue, The Travels of Marco Polo, written down by Rustichello da Pisa in Old French from stories told by Marco Polo describing his travels through Asia between 1271 and 1295, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan whom he served loyally for several years. Like many people, I have read some of the fantastical tales in translation. Dictating and writing, the pair passed the time when they were in prison together in Genoa. Sadly, the original manuscripts were lost and this has led many academics to question whether Marco Polo had, in fact, travelled to China at all or was just repeating stories that he had heard from other travellers.

What did Marco Polo actually say about pasta, or at least noodles, in China? Scholars have said that the phrase Marco Polo used was that ‘even in China’ they ate something like pasta, implying, of course, that there must be pasta ‘at home’. In any case, in a will dated 1279, two years before Polo left for China, a certain Ponzio Bastone left a box of macaronis to his family as a bequest.

Frankly, for me it is a nonsensical argument. It starts and finishes with the fact that wherever wheat and other cereals were grown, ground, and made into flat shapes, the clever casalinga either baked it as a bread, or more conveniently boiled it and called it "laganas" - which is what the Greeks found when they settled Naples in the 7th Century, BCE. We didn’t need to go to China to bring back that bit of basic technology and gastronomy. Italians and Chinese had been doing this independently of each other for centuries.

But people love a bit of food history and there is more definitive proof, if any is needed.

The first point of evidence is that in Etruscan burial sites, evidence of pasta making has been recovered. The Etruscans were in northern and central Italy from 8th Century, BCE to the 2nd Century, BCE. They have found bas reliefs of metal skewers which made a kind of fusilli or spiral.

Photo Credit: Essay by Dr. Jeffery A. Baker. Tomb of the Reliefs. July 2015.

Ancient Rome’s granary par excellence was Sicily, through which, along with wheat and other cereals so much else was ‘exported’ to the mainland – cotton, citrus, almonds, spinach, eggplant, sugarcane, rice, grapes - and so much technology too. The earlier Arabic rulers, under several emirates (827-1091), brought all of these new crops to Sicily but in addition, they brought too a knowledge of distillation, oven craft, irrigation, gelato making, tuna fishing, silk production and a respect for formal education. Under the tutelage of the Moors, Sicilians dried pasta for later use or for transportation over distances. They also made busiata – pasta dough shaped around a reed and then slid off with practiced hands. What do we have? Long pasta with a hole in the middle? Spiral spaghetti. Long, long before Marco Polo set foot in China.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Two Sicilian Women making pasta and drying pasta. Shown in the Taccuinum Sanitatis . The Tacuinum is a medieval handbook on health, "The Maintenance of Health", an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad. It was translated into Latin in Palermo or Naples.

Southern Italy, Campania in particular, is responsible for the mass manufacture of dried pasta. At the outset of the 17th Century, a small town just a few kilometres from Sorrento, called Gragnano, perfected the making and drying of pasta on a large, commercial scale. Thanks to the convergence of several factors, I think the pasta of Gragnano is among the best dried pasta in Italy. The pasta from this town is easy to find in Adelaide – good Foodland supermarkets, Lucia’s in the Central Market and Mercato in Campbelltown.

Photo credit: La Storia della Pasta di Gragnano. The streets were formed to channel the winds between the tenement houses.

Photo credit: Pamphlet from Vecchia Pastificio di Gragnano.

The town of Gragnano has a special climate created by the alternating dry Ponentino airstreams and the warmer, moister Vesubiano winds. Also the streets have been created as wind networks with the pasta left to dry naturally in the sun between the houses. With the perfecting of the kneading machine and the invention of the press, southern Italy benefited with low price, good quality pasta. In this way, pasta became the food of the people, particularly those from the south. Until these technological developments occurred, pasta was a luxury item, a delicacy, eaten by the poor only on feast days.

In the next post we will make pasta from scratch – with eggs, without eggs. With durum floor and soft flour. With barley and semola. From Bologna. From Lecce. From Naples.

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