Passionate about pasta – part 1

The discussion on who made the first pasta is an emotional one – firstly because there are so many theories and secondly because it is, essentially, an Italian discussion.

The Chinese did not make the first pasta even though the oldest form of this food type was found in Lajia (China) in a bowl buried under muddy volcanic slush and made from a millet flour that had been cultivated 7,000 years ago. I could find no proof that it was even remotely like today’s pasta – even though Patrick McGovern (archeochemist, University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology) says it does prove a high level of culinary skills. That still doesn’t make them the first!
“Evidence” pops up constantly throughout history and the Talmud, the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans all mention various kinds of pasta-like foodstuffs during varying stages of their own histories. The most likely creators are the Arabs and even though the Romans could have had a valid claim, they roasted their laganon on stones – which turns it into a bread of a kind. Al Idrisi, an Arab geographer, confirms that a flour-based pasta (string-like in shape) was made in Palermo by the Arabs during their rule.
To my mind, the discussion should be based on whether durum wheat was used or not – since that is the very basis of pasta it should be as simple as that. Italy produces the most durum wheat in the world and they started producing it first. Whether the Arabs brought a pasta of sorts to Italy (and I have every reason to believe they did) or not, it was the Italians or rather the Sicilians, much like these Sicilian pasta makers, who did it first.

Oh yes, the Marco Polo theory – I don’t buy it. He came back from his travels towards the end of the 11th century with records of pasta made from breadfruit!!!!!!!! Furthermore, Naples invented and made the first pasta machine when King Ferdinand II of Naples was annoyed by how long it took his chefs, using their feet, to knead the dough! He probably couldn’t get at it fast enough. 🙂 The weather in Naples is perfect for drying large quantities of pasta and since Italian statutes decree that pasta may only contain semolina and water, the good dry weather is just what is needed! Italy produces the most durum wheat in the world, but that’s not enough for increasing world demand with the result that the old “out” sources in the Ukraine and the Volga River Valley were expanded in the last century to include Australia.

For fresh pasta one goes to Emiglia Romagna in the north of Italy, the paradise of fresh pasta (and also mortadella, ham, parmesan, aceto balsamico …..).
I firmly believe that the pasta from there is always better – smoother and without doubt much more pliable (if that’s the right word). Apart from the flat shapes, there are the ravioli, tortelli, tortellini, lasagne, anolini, cappelleti, cappellacci, agnolotti and so on. One can carry on for the length of one’s imagination. After the pasta there are a myriad of possibilities and I can think of heavenly torte salate like the famous erbazzone Regiano stuffed with spinach as only the Italians can and if you’re in a hurry – have a piadina (it’s Romagna, remember and that’s what they call the tigella) with parma ham instead of a sandwich or crescentina with your antipasti.

Pasta can be divided into the following basic types:

Pasta di semola di grano duro secca – dried, keeps for a long time if stored properly;
Pastina – the small ones used in soup, loved by young children;
Pasta lungha – like spaghetti
Pasta glutinata – with added gluten for kids;
Pasta corta – all the short dried ones
Pasta all’uovo secca – dried, made from durum wheat and egg
Pasta speciale – the flavoured ones, coloured ones and so on;
Pasta di semola fresca – fresh made with durum wheat (like Sardinian malloreddus);
Pasta all’uovo fresca – fresh pasta to be eaten fresh immediately;


500 grams flour
5 eggs
pinch salt

Use the well method, make dough and rest in the fridge or put the whole lot in your food processor, adding the eggs one by one, process until smooth and elastic, cover in cling wrap and rest for at least one hour.

And what to do when you’ve made enough dough for a legion? Make a torta salata



300 grm flour
Pinch salt
2 TB melted butter
1 TB light extra virgin olive oil


1kg spinach, cleaned
50 grm smoked ham
1small garlic clove
1TB finely chopped Italian parsley
4 – 5 TB excellent extra virgin olive oil
60 grm grated parmesan
Pinch salt
2 TB melted butter

Make as you do pasta and leave to rest in a cool place.
Blanche the clean spinach briefly, chop and add chopped ham. Saute briefly with crushed garlic and parsley for a few minutes and remove from heat. Whisk egg until foamy and stir egg and parmesan with salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cool.

Brush springform pan with butter and line with dough, leaving enough for the top. Fill with spinach filling, press down and cover with rest of the dough to make a lid. Brush with the rest of the butter. Prick lid a few times and bake for about an hour in pre-heated 200 C oven.

Enjoy and expect to fall in love.



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7 responses to “Passionate about pasta – part 1

  1. Very interesting article. You’ve got me thinking about the difference between pasta and noodles.

    When I was growing up in the 60s, in the middle of the US, they were all “noodles” whether they were spaghetti with meat sauce, macaroni with cheese, flat noodles with chicken gravy, noodles in chicken soup, sometimes even dumplings (spatzle)…

    Then in the 70s, we got sophisticated about food with Juila Child on TV, and Italian noodles became “pasta.” And they had exotic names: farfelle, tagliatelle, fettuccine, orecchiette, penne, etc. So the distinction between “pasta” and “noodles” was related to social class.

    Since the 80s, I’ve discovered noodles from all over the world and things get confusing. Consider “pizzoccheri;” it’s a northern Italian pasta but it’s made with buckwheat. Somen and udon are made with just flour and water, but they are called noodles. Then there is couscous, which is made with semolina and water.

    The etymology of the word “pasta” itself is confusing. From a quick Google: “It. pasta, from L.L. pasta “dough, pastry cake, paste,” from Gk. pasta “barley porridge,” probably originally “a salted mess of food,” from neut. pl. of pastos (adj.) “sprinkled, salted,” from passein “to sprinkle.”


  2. Even more interesting answer.

    Pasta is a very general term and refers to the dough here – nothing else really.
    Words like ‘farfalle’ refer to the shape of the pasta only. Incidentally, the farfalle have butterfly shapes and are delicious with smoked salmon, cream and fresh dill – this category falls into the “pasta di semola di grano duro secca” (see above). Italian legislation decrees that pasta can only be made with durum wheat (semolina) and water.

    The ravioli etc above are made with fresh pasta and are filled.

    The word “noodle” is the American take on an Italian word.

    This is not a class thing at all – I suggest a basic course in Italian?

  3. Riccardo Sessa

    Pizzocheri is a form of Italian pasta made from the predominant grain, buckwheat and is moderately well-known. What distinguishes it from the best known is only the buckwheat. Buckwheat is a durum wheat an thus in accordance with legislation.
    The result is a dense pasta with a chewier consistency.

  4. for Riccardo Sessa:Buckwheat flour is NOT durum wheat! It is from a completely different plant!

    dough. yes.
    If you look at my wonder-ings from a different perspective, “noodles” COULD be seen differently. I’m not disagreeing with you but I’m saying that there are many ways of looking at things.
    Gosh darn, but I do LOVE all Italian pasta, whatever shape, filled or not! When I was talking about a social class difference, I was referring to my own experience in the US, from many years ago, and the attitude still exists in a similar form here today! I think “noodle” is not only from Italian, but from other immigrants to the US: German, Dutch, possibly British.
    Excellent blog, by the way! Very though inducing.

  5. thoughT inducing,
    best wishes

  6. The word noodle is thought inducing – you are right. We have the same thing here in South Africa! Labeling has become so confusing that I have come to the conclusion that they are only using the word when they want to sell us disgusting second rate stuff. Why else do they use words that mean nothing to us consumers? I mean, can they say bad quality pasta not made from durum wheat? No – so noodles are just fine ….

    I am currently on the war path with our own restaurants and am starting a service whereby chefs can check what they want to put on their menu with us and we will advise them …

  7. Raffaella di Cagno, Maria de Angelis, Giuditta Alfonsi, Massimo de Vincenzi, Marco Silano, Olimpia Vincentini, and Marco Gobbetti from the
    Department of Plant Protection and Applied Microbiology, University of Bari, 70126 Bari, Italy, in collaberation with the Laboratorio di Metabolismo e Biochimica Patologica, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, I-00161 Rome, Italy did a study to see whether pasta made from durum wheat semolina fermented with selected lactobacilli as a tool for a potential decrease of gluten intolerance
    and in this exercise buckwheat was included in the test and oddly the result does seem to indicate that the Italians had a reason for accepting it as a “durum” wheat in the manufacture of pasta – as in the case of the pizzocheri.

    I think he knows his stuff, really

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