292 AD – Ancient sources say that the Chinese invented pasta, and that Marco Polo introduced it to Italy. However, the origins of ‘macaroni’ in Italy go back as far as the time of the Ancient Romans who gave the credit to the ‘Gods’.
Middle Ages – In Sicily, dry pasta was eaten by the Arabs who ruled this area then. Some say that ‘maccheroni’ is derived from the Sicilian word ‘maccarruni’ meaning ‘made into a dough by force’.
1st Century AD – The first mention of the existence of a mixture closely resembling pasta can be read in a book on the art of cooking by Apicius, who lived at the time of Tiberius , where he writes about the preparation of a mince or fish dish lined with ‘lasagne’. Types of pasta like lasagne were also know in Ancient Greece and Rome, and vermicelli in medieval Italy.
12th Century – There is no other definite mention until the 12th Century when Guglielmo di Malavalle describes a banquet he attended, at which a dish was served that was called ‘macarrones sen logana’ consisting of pasta mashed in sauce.
13th Century – Pasta was mentioned by Jacopore da Todi.
14th Century – Boccaccio’s famous story in which the painter Bruno describes the land of Cockaigne where ‘there was a whole mountain of grated Parmesan cheese and on top were standing people who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon broth’.
15th Century – The first recipe for lasagne was written. In the same century, a book by Father Bartolomeo Secchi, ‘De Honesta Voluptate’, mentions long and hollow pasta, as well as pasta similar to present day soup noodles.
16th Century – Pasta products, however, did not have an important role in the meal, until at least the 16th Century. Pasta was consumed occasionally as a luxury or dessert because the special durum wheat necessary for pasta production had to be imported from regions such as Sicily or Puglia. The pasta was costly and only consumed by richer classes.
Production of pasta for sale dates back to medieval times. Documents show that in the 16th Century there were already many pasta manufacturers in Savona and Torre Annunziata, and that the screw press pasta shape maker was already widely used at that time.
18th Century -Pasta remained a luxury product until the 18th Century, finally becoming part of the daily diet in Southern Italy for the following reasons.
A national lack of money around the 17th Century caused a drastic reduction in the ability of families
to buy household items.
The kneading machine and press were introduced, allowing wider distribution and greater factory production of pasta than was possible with handmade ‘fresh’ pasta.
At the same time, the economic crisis lead to more large farms, creating conditions favourable to the expansion of durum wheat cultivation. Pasta was then available as a very cheap and readily available food for the poorest people.
1770 – The word macaroni had come to have a special meaning in England ‘perfection and elegance’. It was common practice for the English to use the slang phrase ‘that’s macaroni’ to describe anything exceptionally good. So when the English soldier wrote the song about Yankee Doodle sticking a feather in his hat, and calling it a macaroni, he showed that the feather was an object of elegance.
The need to dry pasta, rather than eating it freshly made, came with the increased trading which resulted from the establishment of the Marine Republics in Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi. A type of food which could easily be stored on board ship for long voyages needed to be produced. Sailors from Amalfi on their frequent voyages to Sicily took the Sicilian art of drying pasta back home with them. As a result the region around the Gulf of Naples started to produce its own dried pasta.
Common usage of the word ‘macaroni’ defines long cylindrical shapes, whether solid or hollow, while ‘lasagne’ refers to all flattened pasta shapes: ribbons, tagliatelle etc.
1900 – Pasta manufacture today is very advanced with the discovery of electricity in the early 1900’s, machines were invented for mixing the dough and electrically controlling drying chambers were introduced, making life easier for the pasta industry. Pasta was no longer limited to warm climates and on pressing a button the quantity of pasta that had once taken a month to produce was obtained in an hour. Today pasta-making has become very automated. The whole process of reception of raw materials, production, packaging, and dispatch can be performed completely automatically by computer – controlled machinery.
In New Zealand there is one large company that makes most of the pasta that you see on your supermarket shelves. There are also many smaller companies making “fresh” pasta and selling it either loose by the kilogram or vacuum packed.
Methods used to make pasta
Wheat is milled into semolina and coarsely ground flour then delivered to the pasta factory (called pastificio in Italy) where it is checked for impurities and stored in silos.
The coarsely ground flour and semolina are gently mixed with water to form a stiff paste perfect for shaping. This is usually done in large tubs, the last of which is under vacuum which contributes to the amber colour of the pasta. Egg may also be added for noodle mix – usually two eggs for every 454g of pasta.
Pasta dough then moves into pressing machines where mixing, kneading and blending continues. When the dough is just right it is pressed through metal plates with holes in them, which are called die plates. The shape of the holes in the die plate decides the shape of the pasta.
A process where dough is extruded through various different shapes of nozzles to form the type of pasta required is also used overseas.
Two types of extruding nozzles, teflon and bronze, can be used. Teflon nozzles give the pasta a smooth, translucent surface, whereas the bronze one gives the pasta a rough, opaque surface. Factories using teflon nozzles can produce far more pasta in a shorter time than those using the bronze ones, because the dough passes through teflon much more quickly than it does through bronze.
One of the oldest pasta factories in Naples, Voiello, still uses the old-fashioned bronze variety and although the slower production raises the price, the factory owners say that real pasta lovers are willing to pay a little more to get perfect pasta.
From here the type of pasta being made determines the rest of the process. To make long goods such as spaghetti, the die plate or extrusion nozzles have round holes. As the pasta moves through the holes it forms long strands. They hang down to form a curtain. A rod moves behind the strands. At the die plate the spaghetti is cut with a sharp blade.
To make short goods (such as macaroni) there are a huge variety of die plates. The tube shape of macaroni comes from a hole with a pin in the centre. For alphabet macaroni the holes are shaped into letters. As the pasta moves out of the die plate it is cut by a rotating knife. The short pasta falls over a steam heated vibrator and moves into the drying line.
To make noodles, lasagne and kluski, the pasta is pressed through special die shapes and cut to the required length.
A combination of drying processes can be used. The pasta is first pre-dried at very high temperatures, rested (or cured), and then dried in a final dryer just enough to keep the moisture it needs.
Before pasta is packaged it is carefully examined and some of it is tested by cooking to ensure that everything is perfect. Good pasta should not become soft or slimy while cooking and should hold its perfectly cooked state, al dente, for up to ten minutes, once drained, before being classed as ‘overcooked’. After testing it is then weighed and, if necessary, cut.
Pasta is then sent to other food manufacturers for use in noodle soups, canned spaghetti and fry-pan dinners. The rest is packaged and sent to stores and supermarkets for sale.
Pasta has a shelf life of two years, provided it is stored in a cool, dry place away from other products which could contaminate it.