The unsatisfied hunger of Pulcinella
Diana Donatelli - 30/01/2004
Who invented pasta? The Chinese, the inhabitants of Palermo, Liguria, Naples, or was it the work of a sorcerer, as related by the Napolitan writer Matilde Serao, as a reworking an old popular legend ? None of the above : the origin of pasta has its roots in the distant past of mankind, when man abandoned the nomadic life, about 7000 years ago, and learnt to command his resources by cultivating the earth and herding animals. From this moment onwards wheat never left us and gave birth to the history of pasta. Thus, from generation to generation, man learnt to mill wheat, and with water to make pasta from it, to stretch it out and to cook it on heated stones.
A thousand years before Christ the Greeks and Etruscans produced and consumed the first types of pasta. The Greek work “laganon” that Cicero and Horace cited in their works and that one finds centuries later in “De Re coquinaria” of Apicius, cooked by alternating the levels of “lagane” with meat or fish.
Desert Arabs were the first to dry pasta in order to conserve it, as in their wanderings they did not have enough water to prepare fresh pasta. They made small tubes of pasta that dried rapidly. The book of Ibran al Mibrad, the oldest document (9th century) that mentions pasta, describes a dish common to the Bedouin and Berber tribes that is still eaten today in Syria and in Lebanon – the “rista”, dried macaroni often mixed with lentils.
Palermo is the capital of pasta. Knowledge and savoir-faire in producing artisan dried pasta would have been introduced in Sicily between the 9th and 11th centuries. Already by the 12th century, during Norman domination, Sicily was producing pasta and exporting it to southern regions. Before the birth of Marco Polo, around 1150, the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi tells us that at Trabia, a pleasant village 30 kilometres from Palermo: “Pasta is produced in abundance, in the form of threads, named triyan (from the Arabic itrijan) that they export a bit everywhere, in Calabria, and to the different Muslim and Christian countries, also by boat”. In Sicily there is still the “tria bastarda” and the “tria vermicelli” and in the Salento “la massa and tria” and the “ciceri and tria”.
The other region that from the 13th century distinguishes itself in the production and exportation of pasta is Liguria.
At Gragnano, in the region around Naples, the abundant springs favoured the existence of numerous mills, and from around 1600, a large number of pasta factories.
During the 14th and 18th centuries, it is impossible to dissociate the macaroni from Pulcinella, the famous Napolitan mask, whose mental state is rendered by hunger and thus a continuous dream: an enormous plate of macaroni, that is never completely assuaged. Macaroni was already by the 17th century the unrivalled dish of the Napolitans.
And now the time has arrived to satisfy your famished Pulcinella by preparing a big plate of Macaroni.
Maccaroni à la Positano
Ingredients for four people : 400 gr of «sedani rigati» (a type of short pasta), 700 grams of courgettes, one egg, 75 gr of pecorino (hard goats cheese) and grated parmesan, a bunch of basil, salt, pepper, olive oil.
Chop the courgettes, after having washed them with care, into fine slices. Fry them in small quantities in one finger of well-heated olive oil then place them on a plate covered by absorbent paper to collect any excess oil. Put the egg yolk in a bowl where you will put the pasta, season with salt and pepper and whisk with a fork. Cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water and at the same time wash and dry the basil. Drain the pasta remembering to conserve a glassful of the cooking water. Pour the pasta into the bowl with the egg, add the cheese and mix everything together, finally add the courgettes and a large quantity of basil. When mixing, if the pasta is too dry, add a little of the cooking water and serve immediately.