Pasta: It’s ubiquitous. This staple of modern cuisine comes in all shapes and sizes, from the spaghetti of a quintessential Roman “Cacio e Pepe” to the cheese-stuffed ravioli served by our chefs here at L’Academie in Montreal. It has crossed borders, invaded foreign cuisines, connected tradespeople across deserts, and even forged new empires. What was once a simple dried sheet of dough has evolved into a sophisticated staple of fine dining.
But where did it all come from? How did a quick snack consisting of dried strands of dough evolve into linguini con gamberi, penne di Trieste, and fettuccini con rucola (one of our personal favourites here at L’Academie!)?
In this month’s blog, we’re going to tackle the history of pasta, and how we’ve come to serve this dish to the hungry people of Montreal each day. The answer will take us through the centuries, across oceans, and straight into our kitchen!
The popular myth in North America is that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy upon returning from China, launching an Italian culinary tradition that eventually became the leading food in the country (Italians to this day consume 60 pounds of pasta per year)!
This is false. History shows that long before anyone with name Polo traveled anywhere on the planet, a dish existed across the Mediterranean known as “lagana”. Made from dough, fried up, and sometimes stuffed with meat, it was an everyday snack for commoners and wealthy alike. If you noticed a resemblance to the modern word “lasagna”, then you’re onto something!
So it’s clear that the ancients knew just how irresistibly delicious dough-based meals were thousands of years ago, but this doesn’t explain how we’ve come to enjoy it in noodle form in the present day. To get that answer, we’ve got to reach back to the famed Silk Road, cross the desert, and make our way to Sicily!
From the Far East, through the desert, and across oceans: pasta comes to the West
So now we know that all of the Ancient Mediterranean World had been snacking on dough for years before the modern idea of pasta took hold, but it wasn’t until around the 5th Century that the real predecessor of what we call pasta reached the Western World.
Arab traders, hardy travellers used to spending weeks in the desert under the hot sun, introduced dried noodles called “itriyah” to Europe. They were capable of staying fresh for long periods of time and surviving the harsh environment common across North Africa and the current Middle East. Foods like itriyah were common across Asia, and helped merchants survive long journeys on ancient routes such as the Silk Road that connected Europe with the Orient.
So now, when you bite into a savory fork full of our spaghetti carbonara, you can imagine yourself trading silk with the Emperor of China (or just focus on how delicious it is).
What’s even more interesting is that, just as it had a thousand years earlier, pasta helped open up merchants and immigrants to a new frontier in the 15th Century: the New World. Spanish travelers used dried pasta to help fill their hungry stomachs on the months at sea before reaching the Americas!
Modern pasta: an Italian twist!
It doesn’t matter where it came from, who invented it, or how many nations claim to have started it, when we think pasta we think Italy. Why?
It’s because “the boot of Europe” embraced this new food like few others. Also, it had one major advantage over other countries in the region: sauce! The rich farmland and culinary tradition of Italy gave rise to tomato sauce in the 1700’s. The rest is history! Before that, people only ate dried pasta. We feel deeply sorry for them! Thomas Jefferson even helped make a push to popularize a dish he called macaroni in his young country after eating it while he lived in Paris.
Throw in some garnishes, methods of mass production, a bit of Italian ingenuity, and the migration of pasta lovers from Italy to North America, and you’ve got the dishes that sit on your table today.
What once was a dried snack consisting only of dough fried in oil is now a full-fledged culinary phenomenon. Call it spaghetti, ravioli, linguini, or any other name you’d like, we all call it delicious! The history of pasta started in Asia, was brought to Europe, and then sailed across the ocean right into the kitchen of L’Academie in Montreal. We are proud to extend this rich tradition to this very day by serving ravioli, pasta con gamberi, penne di Trieste, spaghetti carbonara, and more of your favourites at lunch and dinner time.
Stop by L’Academie any time you’re craving some of the most delicious pasta dishes in the local area!