The History of Pasta

If one could follow the scent of pasta through the millennia, it's no exaggeration to say that the entire history of civilization would be traced. The trail would span cultures and continents ranging from Asia, the Mid-East, Europe, the Americas, and parts of Africa, and reach back at least 3,500 years. Yet, in spite of all the myriad of forms it has taken and the countless contexts in which it has appeared, today it is almost universally associated with Italy - though historically, this has not always been the case. In fact, it is only in the last century or so that many regions of northern Italy - including Veneto, Lombardy, Liguria and the Piemonte - have embraced pasta as an essential part of their cuisine. But, there are many aspects of pasta's history that are surprising.

The early history of pasta does not begin with Italy, but rather in the Shang dynasty in China (1700-1100 BC) where some form of noodles are known to have existed - made with either wheat or rice flour. Pasta also appears to have been a feature in the diet of ancient Greek civilization, flourishing in the first millennium BC. In fact, the word lasagna comes from the Greek term "laganon," which consisted of strips of dough made with flour and water.

But, as early as the fourth century BC, the story of pasta shifts to Italy: there is archeological evidence for the existence of pasta in the Etruscan civilization, which flourished in the regions we now call Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. A bas-relief unearthed in an Etruscan tomb depicts tools and kitchen utensils used to roll and form pasta very similar to those still in use today. A lucky find for anthropology, but a sad blow to the legend of Marco Polo, which claims it was he who introduced Europe to pasta after his adventures in the Far East. He may have brought some unusual noodles back with him, but it was certainly not the first time Italians had ever seen such food.

But like so much else in Italy, the development of pasta as a culinary art really takes off in the Renaissance. By the 14th century, pasta was a regular part of life in Rome and Florence. As far as we know the first scholar to write extensively about pasta was the humanist known as Platina. In 1474, he wrote an important treatise, entitled "On Right Pleasure and Good Health" (De honesta volupatate et valetudine). In addition to essays on gastronomy and recipes, the treatise includes discussions on the elemental nature of food, recommended exercises for the body, and general suggestions on how to feel in harmony in life.

In later centuries, as it became available in dried forms and sold in shops, pasta grew more and more popular, until by the 19th century, it achieved a presence and stature in Italian cuisine that continues to evolve to the present day. The extraordinary variety and sophistication of pasta dishes now - from Bucatini alla amatriciana to Linguine al pestoare part of a centuries' long evolution. Though Italians cannot claim to have invented pasta, it's clear they took to the creation with an unparalleled joy, passion and inventiveness - developing an entire culture and cuisine around it, which is now recognized worldwide.