It should be neither surprising nor disappointing, but popular history is often more tale than fact. It’s unsurprising as we relate these legends as a mechanism for explaining our culture. It’s not disappointing as popular history is wildly entertaining.
However, it is sometimes useful to recalibrate our sense of reality with a quick glace at the under-pinning truth.
The story of Marco Polo and his adventures to the Far East played an important role for the Renaissance worldview. His was a tale of adventure and mystery that was told to the urban and rural poor, people who rarely saw the next valley, let alone such distant lands. This legend helped ordinary citizens understand that great knowledge and power was still to be discovered.
All that I’ll gladly grant to Marco Polo. But not pasta.
Since Etruscan times of the 9th century BC cooks on the Italian peninsula had cooked lagane, a baked wheat and buckwheat noodle served with oils and herbs. Returning Roman soldiers brought back recipes for boiled Palestinian noodles called itriyya in the early years of the Empire. Records of both foods are found in contemporary histories.
Following the Arab invasion of Italy’s south in the 8th century AD the first evidence of long wheat noodles emerged in Sicily and Calabria. They were called macaroni, meaning ‘made forcefully’. Today we know these noodles as spaghetti, meaning ‘little strings’.
So by the time Marco Polo returned in 1295, pasta-making was a well-practiced art, although only in Italy’s south. Polo was Venetian – a northerner – and his tales of the East may well have sparked (or re-ignited) culinary interest in the city-states of Venice, Milan and Genoa.
But the claim that he discovered pasta from the Chinese is unfounded, and it is a tale that does disservice to the remarkable and complex history of the Italian people. The Chinese rice noodles were unique and Italian pasta-making technique improved as a result, but this was refinement, not invention.
To cook pasta, a large pot of rapidly boiling water with ½ tsp of fine salt per litre is all you need. Oil in the water won’t stop noodles from sticking. For that you simply need to stir the pot.
Whether the history of pasta is fact or fiction, the taste is true. Truly delicious!!!
Aglio e olio: Angel hair pasta with garlic and olive oil