Is pasta Italian?

Italy, food and history

History is not a list of dates, names, wars, winners and losers. History talks also about people who lived on our planet, about their ideas, thoughts, feelings, emotion and their life style. This is why also local cuisine and gastronomic culture is a part of our history. By looking at our food and taste, we can understand something about men, about our habits and ways of thinking.

This is particularly true in case of Italian cuisine, not only because food for Italians is an almost sacred issue, and because Italians love passing their time at the table with their friends and family, but also because Italian history is a history of conquests, of encounters between different people and their traditions, scents and flavours. All the cultures which mingled on the Italian Peninsula, influenced the taste of Italy.

For millennia the Mediterranean Sea, called by the Romans Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea”, was a place of exchange. People, goods, stories and myths, languages, cultures but also food and spices travelled across the sea.

The question is: what is “Italian cuisine“? Maybe it is just a sum of the different cuisines of various Italian cities and territories. Think about Trent and Sicily, for example: the North and the South, mountains on one side and seaside on the other. Sicily is an island, separated from the rest of the continent. While Trent belongs to a territory directed towards Northern Europe. People eat fish in Sicily and polenta in Trent. What can these two regions have in common? Who eats Italian?

Let us take a little gastronomic tour of Italy! We will discover some of the traditional Italian dishes and talk about innovations and gastronomic revolutions. We will look into the plates of various people who lived side by side and occupied the Apennine Peninsula during the centuries.

Pasta and Italians as “mangiamaccheroni”

Luca Giordano, Pasta Eater, ca. 1660, Princeton University Art Museum.

When we think of Italy, we immediately think of pasta! Yet, did you know that the dry pasta (pastasciutta in Italian) wasn’t invented by the Italians?

Because pasta can be dried and stored for a long time, it became an important invention for the Arabic culture and it was an essential Arabic food eaten during the long trips across the desert. Today, because it is so easy to store and preserve pasta for a long time, it became an excellent product for industrial production and distribution.

Dry pasta spread across the Mediterranean from Sicily, a melting pot of cultures and an island strongly influenced by the Arabs. This is where “industrial” production of this unique food began and from where it spread through the sea across the Peninsula and the Mediterranean area. It became very popular in the port cities and in the territories with the access to the sea.

Not by chance in the Italian regions, which did not have access to the sea, such as Lombardy or Emilia, the tradition of freshly prepared pasta (pasta fresca) dominates over the pastasciutta. Still today Bologna is the Italian capital of freshly made pasta

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Pasta has to be al dente!

In Europe and in other parts of the world, pasta is often served well cooked as a side dish together with meat. Italians are horrified by the idea!

In Italy pasta has to be served al dente and it constitutes a dish on its own. But it has not always been so! In the past, the rich aristocrats would eat well cooked pasta served as a side dish. The poor people, instead, who could not afford meat or other ingredients, used to eat their pasta as an independent dish.

Fresh pasta in Bologna

Therefore, today’s habit of serving pasta as a distinct dish, was adopted out of necessity and until the 17th century it was a sign of poverty. The Italian attachment to the pasta evolved during the centuries and it was often determined by the socio-economical status of a given family.

Another little curiosity: today we consider pasta a salty dish. Has it always been so? Absolutely not! During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance pasta used to be served with sugar and sweet spices. How distant is today’s Italian cuisine from its ancient tradition!

De gustibus

If we look deeper into the gastronomic history of Europe, we can understand how our taste evolved during the centuries. There is no such a thing as “Italian taste” or “French taste”!

The Ancient Romans, for example, served almost every food with vinegar and honey dressing. Later, the Arabs brought to Italy the sour taste of citrus fruits, which stared to be combined with the sweet taste of cane sugar. During the Middle Ages Italians discovered the spices, which were very expensive. Therefore, the use of spices started to represent wealth.

At the same time the poor discovered salt and salty flavour, as salt was an excellent preservative. All these flavours were customary to different palates and poor people ate differently than the rich aristocrats. This is how our taste is influenced by certain cultural trends, necessity or trade and cultural exchange

Paolo Veronese, The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1563, Louvre, Paris.
Veronese’s painting beautifully represents a Renaissance banquet of the rich aristocracy with food, wine and music.

First commandment: always divide the flavours

I don’t know if you have ever noticed during your trips to Italy that Italians are very strict regarding the order in which various dishes are being served. For example they never mix different flavours on their plates. The dessert always comes at the end of a meal and nobody would ever change this almost “sacred” order of plates. A plate of pasta will never come after the roasted meat, a salad should never be served with a pizza, a cappuccino cannot be drunk together with the tagliatelle al ragù! In Florence the waiters often fight a real cultural battle with the tourists, who try to order a cappuccino together with the Florentine steak!

However, there are few exceptions to this rule. I think, for example, of the mustard from Cremona, made of sweet fruits, such as ananas, figs, cherries or oranges, and spicy mustard. This particular dressing is served with meat and it adds sweet-sour taste to the dish. However, generally speaking, Italians tend to keep various flavours separated, in order to enhance each of them.

Nowadays, this rule is followed by many European cuisines, which tend to separate natural flavours of various ingredients.

However, in the past, also in Italy the dishes were composed of a mix of flavours. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people thought that every plate should include all the different flavours: sweet, salty, spicy and sour. In consequence, the dish did not reflect the natural flavours of ingredients, as it is nowadays. The taste of a plate was rather artificially created by the cook and it had to be different than the “natural” flavour. In the past, in Italy, dishes at the tables of the rich noblemen were covered with sugar and spices and all the different flavours were mixed together. How is it possible that today the tradition is just the opposite?

Annibale Carracci, Mangiafagioli, 1584-1585, Galleria Colonna, Rome.

This gastronomic and cultural revolution happened in 17th-century France, where the cooks rejected the idea of mixing various flavours and stopped adding spices and sugar to their plates. This is when the idea of savouring the primary aroma of every ingredient emerged. At that time France was dominating European culture. The French started to dictate fashions and represented a model of sophistication and refinement. This is when most of the European cuisines were influenced by the new French gastronomic manners.

At the same time during the 17th century spices in Europe became much cheaper, accessible to everybody and lost its meaning of a status-symbol. As it was less fancy to use the spices, they went out of fashion. This also when various sauces used to dress meat and other dishes, started to be substituted by the olive oil and when the vegetables appeared as side dishes served together with meat. Sugar, instead, became a basic ingredient of a dish served at the end of each meal, the dessert.

Traces of the ancient traditions, however, survived in the gastronomic habits of the peasants’, which were less influenced by the new fashions. It’s enough to mention the mustard from Cremona again, a sour-sweet sauce which still today is served with boiled hen in the traditional bollito misto and strongly influences the taste of this simple dish.

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Mixing the flavours? But why?

If the idea of keeping the various savours separated originated in 17th-century France, we should ask why people used to mix the flavours in a sometimes strange way before.

During the Middle Ages, and until the affirmation of Modern science, European cuisine reflected the Galenic medicine and the idea of four elements: fire, air, earth and water; and their qualities: warm, cold, dry and humid. For the Medieval thinkers, any matter present in the world was a fruit of combination between these qualities and every living being had to maintain a balance between these four factors: warmth, cold, dryness and humidity. In consequence, also the food had to keep this balance. An ingredient, which introduced imbalance, had to be corrected by other ingredients, by a correct pairing or by a right cooking method, so the result was healthy and neutral.

Galenic Garden of Minerva in Salerno – in this Medieval garden aromatic plants grow in concentric circles divided in four parts according to the logic of four elements. Each plant is described as dry, cold, humid or warm.

This is why in the past some fruits were considered unhealthy. People considered them cold and humid. This is the case of pears, which had to be served with other ingredients able to “heat” this unbalanced fruit. This is the reason why still today pears (cold and humid) and cheese (dry and warm) are considered a perfect combination. In Italian there even is this saying: “Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere.” – “Never tell the peasant, how good cheese and pears are!”

Taste, in this case, was influenced by a “medical” rule.

The same logic that governs pears and cheese, stands behind the idea of serving ham and melon together! Warm and dry ham has to be eaten with cold and humid melon and together they create a perfect balance of the elements, which put our bodies into equilibrium.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Last Supper, 1480, Ognissanti, Florence.
The recent study by Allen Grieco, published in the volume Food, Social Politics and the Order of Nature in Renaissance Italy reveals the importance of the theory of four elements for the Renaissance wine culture, which we can trace also in the representations of Last Suppers.

Think of it next time when you order your prosciutto e melone!

Isn’t it fascinating that every dish has its own story? I love to imagine people who in the past travelled across the world carrying with them savours and products from their homeland. When I close my eyes I see a sailor from Palermo who eats his plate of pasta after disembarking in Genoa… A curious Genoese takes a bite and fells in love with this new food!

We can discover infinite stories by just looking into our shopping bag or by going for a walk through one of the Italian food markets. Our journey through Italian taste will definitely continue… 

Do you want to discover Tuscan gastronomic culture during a food tour in Florence? Contact me! I will be happy to organize your private tours!