Travelers along the Silk Road over the centuries relied on noodles for sustenance. This 1926 account by an early Indiana Jones of his encounter with freshly made al dente pasta in western China sheds some light on how noodles were made and probably had been for centuries or more:
…it was a matter, part of force and part of diplomacy, to persuade Chan Kweide, the innkeeper, to start the water boiling in the huge cast-iron cauldron and to begin rolling dough.… Heaped on a flat board, [the wheat flour] was damped down and kneaded… [He] rolled it into a sheet. …This was cleverly cut into narrow strips and tossed into the boiling pot for three minutes. …the boiling water reached only the outsides and within was quite as raw as when it was first rolled out. …there were two other forms in which the stuff was cut and which seemed to affect the flavor fundamentally; one was in inch squares and the other in wider tapes.…
From China, noodles had spread to Japan in the 8th century, but there—though they diversified into buckwheat soba, wheat-flour udon, and other types, flat or round in section—they were never made of rice.
But Italy is where pasta developed into the delicious and varied food the world so loves. In the 1200s, the pasta trade spread by sea from Sicily to the important ports of Naples and Genoa, where grain imports and a mild climate optimal for drying the pasta favored the development of important centers of production, and then on to Bologna. In 1348, Boccaccio, in the Decameron, describes an imaginary land where “there was a mountain of grated Parmigiano cheese, on top of which were people who did nothing but make maccheroni and ravioli and cook them in capon broth and then they threw them down, and whoever gathered the most, got to keep the most.”
The modern era of Italian pasta began in the late 16th century with primitive mechanization. Now machines could extrude the tubular and other shapes that had previously been fashioned by hand (and still are in parts of Italy). The era of pasta as a low-cost food had begun. In the 18th century, poor but canny Neapolitans turned eating spaghetti with their fingers into performance art for the amusement of the Grand Tourists—and carbs replaced greens in the urban diet. In the late 19th century, the machinery made another leap forward. New sizes and shapes followed, and drying no longer relied on expert reading of air temperature and winds. At this same time, pasta manufacturing followed Italian emigrants across the Atlantic.
In 1833 in the Crimean port of Taganrog, a young Italian sailor, Giuseppe Garibaldi, had been inspired by the passionate speech of a compatriot from Liguria to join the Young Italy movement, which led in turn to Garibaldi’s heroic destiny as the Unifier of Italy. The Ligurians had come to Taganrog to trade in the region’s durum wheat, the very best of its day, and today the excellent Taganrog grain has been revived and is cultivated in Italy for a niche single-wheat pasta product. En route to immortality, Garibaldi predicted that pasta would be the ultimate unifier of Italy. Tomorrow, he might have added, the world.
Maureen B. Fant is a native New Yorker who has lived in Rome for many years. Trained as a classical archaeologist (she is coauthor of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome), she now specializes—as writer, translator, and teacher—in the culture of Italian food from antiquity to the present. Her credits include the Dictionary of Italian Cuisine (with Howard Isaacs) and the translation of the Encyclopedia of Pasta. She is writing a new cookbook on pasta with Oretta Zanini De Vita for Norton.