The mysterious origins of pasta

Everybody knows by now that Italians were eating pasta before Marco Polo returned from the Orient with those legendary noodles. But how long before? Mounting evidence from food scholars indicates that pasta has been around virtually forever.

Mediterranean peoples have been growing and milling grains for at least nine thousand years. Indeed, evidence has emerged that Paleolithic peoples in Tuscany’s Mugello valleys used crude mortars and pestles to crush the highly nutritious stems of the marsh plant Typha latifolia (commonly known as cattail) to make what archeologists insist was the world’s first flour 30,000 years ago. Whatever the case, the resulting flour or meal could be made into paste or lumps of dough, which if heated, whether on scalding rocks or, with the passage of time, in pans or in ovens or, as logic suggests, by boiling in pots, what else would the emerging comestible be than some form of pasta?

In the Neolithic, the last of the three periods of the Stone Age, people became sedentary and began to cultivate cereals and raise animals. The practice of polishing and the invention of ceramics favored longer preservation of cereals which were ground and mixed with water and cooked or left to dry in the sun.

Antiquarians cite examples of pasta-like foods in many parts of Asia Minor and the Middle East, where nomads revitalized dried dough in hot water when they reached oases. The word ‘pasta’ probably derived from a Greek term which meant flour mixed with liquid. The Greeks ate laganoz, the copycat Romans làgana, later generations of Italians lasagne. All refer to sheets of unleavened dough, which may or may not have been cooked in liquid. Perhaps the most telling illustration of antique pasta making was found in a fourth-century BC Etruscan tomb called Grotta Bella, a relief depicting a kitchen with a pastry board, rolling pin, and dough-cutting wheel.

Italy, with its climate particularly suited to the cultivation of durum wheat, soon became the most important country for the production of pasta. Italy’s first cut and dried dough cooked by boiling was recorded in twelfth-century Sicily, by a certain Al Idrisi when the island was under Arab rule. He mentions a dry pasta in the shape of threads, called by them itriyya, which may or may not have been the first form of spaghetti.

It seems that nobody, Italian or otherwise, specifically invented pasta, but, rather, it was conceived in various ways and places through the ages. Now, I’m not going to pretend that antique cooks were into spaghetti or fettuccine or the fancy tubes, spirals, butterflies, bellybuttons, and stuffed envelopes that embellish pasta encyclopedias today. But who’s to say that they didn’t make disks or strands or sheets or dumplings of dough from the flour of grain or dried chestnuts or cattails and boil them in water or broth and flavor them with sauces of vegetables, herbs, meats, or cheeses?

Testaroli are said to have originated with the Etruscans and described by some as the earliest recorded pasta. They are popular in the Lunigiana area of northern Tuscany and southern Liguria, prepared from a simple batter of flour, water and salt and cooked on a testo, a heated terracotta or cast iron mold, which accounts for the name. They were originally eaten directly from the testo, but today they are often further cooked in boiling water and served with pesto sauce or other ingredients such as walnuts, pecorino cheese and garlic smashed together with a mortar and pestle.

Testaroli would make a scintillating match with a white wine from the antique variety of Vermentino, from the Colli di Luni, whose DOC zone straddles Liguria and Tuscany. Two examples among many:

Colli di Luni Vermentino Costa Marina 2019 Ottaviano Lambruschi

Colli di Luni Vermentino Lunae 2020 Cantine Lunae Bosoni 

Lasagne or Lasagna seems to derive from the Greek laganoz, and refers to pasta either fresh or dried usually in sheets (but not always). Often called làgana or sagne in the southern Italy, there’s some controversy over whether it was a pasta to be cooked in boiling water and then dressed or a type of flatbread. Lasagne may have originated in Basilicata, where it was noted by ancient Romans as made with ragout, since people there used ground meat for cooking and sausages in those times. It was later popularized as Lasagne alla Bolognese with ragout, bechamel and Parmigiano.

However it’s prepared, Lasagne would make a fine match with a red wine of Basilicata from Aglianico, a variety introduced there by the ancient Greeks. Two examples among many:

Aglianico del Vulture Il Repertorio 2019 Cantine del Notaio

Aglianico del Vulture Synthesi 2017 Paternoster