The word pasta is generally used to describe traditional Italian noodles, which differentiates it from other types of noodles around the world. Pasta is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs. The use of durum wheat sets pasta apart from other forms of noodles. Durum wheat’s high gluten content and low moisture make it perfectly suited to pasta production. The durum wheat dough is pressed into sheets, cut into a variety of shapes, and cooked before serving.
Although pasta is considered a culturally Italian food, it is likely the descendent of ancient Asian noodles. A common belief about pasta is that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo during the 13th century. In his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage that briefly mentions his introduction to a plant that produced flour. The Chinese used this plant to create a meal like barley flour. The barley-like meal Polo mentioned was used to make several pasta-like dishes, including one described as “lagana” (lasagna). Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, the book relies heavily upon oral tradition by various authors and experts. This, combined with the fact that pasta was already gaining popularity in other areas of Italy during the 13th century, makes it very unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy.
Noodles existed in Asia long before Polo’s trip to China. Archaeologists believe that central Asia is most likely the first area to have produced noodles thousands of years ago. From Asia, it travelled westward. The way it reached Europe is unclear, though there are many theories. Some believe that nomadic Arabs are responsible for bringing early forms of pasta westward. Once it reached the Mediterranean the process was refined, and durum wheat became the ingredient of choice for pasta flour because of its high gluten content and long shelf life. When durum wheat pasta is dried, it lasts indefinitely, making it a very convenient food to store. Over time, because of pasta’s affordability, shelf life, and versatility, it became firmly rooted in Italian culture. The warm Mediterranean climate of Italy is suited to growing fresh vegetables and herbs, which meant that Italians could get creative with a delicious variety of pasta sauces. Tomato-based sauces emerged as a favourite complement to pasta, and tomatoes remain the most popular ingredient in pasta sauce today.
Early Spanish settlers were among the first to bring pasta to America. Ironically, it was Thomas Jefferson that helped give pasta an initial push into popularity. During an extended stay in Paris from 1784-1789, Jefferson ate what he called macaroni. He enjoyed the dish so much that he returned to America with two cases in tow. When his supply ran out, he sent for reinforcements via a friend from Naples.
Pasta is, for all intents and purposes, a comfort food. One of its most endearing qualities is how little it has changed over the centuries. It is still made with the same essential ingredients and preparations that it has been since antiquity. Pasta, with its long, multicultural history, is a culinary connection to our past. It remains a staple that is nutritious, delicious, and steeped with tradition in cultures around the world.
SUBMITTED BY: RICHARD GILLMAN, OWNER, SAUCY ARTISAN PASTA
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CRANBERRY MEWS | 10 Keith Ave. Unit 205, Collingwood
(705) 29-FOODO (293-6636)
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(705) 60-PASTA (6072782)