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“Spaghetti Bolognaise does not exist.” As far as Italians in the northern town of Bologna are concerned the combination of dried hard wheat pasta with their beloved veal and pork ragout is as unthinkable as pineapple on a pizza, both crimes equal to treason, as Chef Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen found out.

As with the pizza, the globalisation of pasta has led to many creative combinations that do not represent Italian food culture. Italians have been fighting to protect their food traditions, not to deny the rest of the world creativity but to reclaim their culinary heritage so that it does not disappear in a pseudo-Italian food culture created outside the homeland.

Pasta is religion in Italy. It comes with many rules and there are many sins to commit. It is only when you study the fascinating history and complex development of pasta that one realises what an insult some of our creations are to such a rich culture. From the onset there is confusion about this simple preparation: Marco Polo did not bring pasta to Italy from China. Food historians have now declared this common assumption a pasta sin.

It is more likely, linked as it is to the cultivation of wheat and the production of flour, that pasta was invented and developed separately in the areas where cereals were grown. There is evidence that Etruscans, Greeks, Romans and Arabs were all producing unleavened products out of water and flour. Arabs are however credited with introducing dried pasta to Sicily. The Arab geographer, Al Idris, used the term tria in 1154 to indicate unleavened strands of pasta which were produced in large quantities at Trabia in Sicily and exported to Calabria and other parts of the Mediterranean.

While a dried hard durum wheat pasta culture developed in the south of Italy a similar preparation of soft wheat and eggs, cooked from fresh rather than dried developed in the north of the country. Food anthropologists explain that the climate of the north produces softer flour that lacks gluten and eggs were added to compensate for the absence of protein, but also that women used ingredients that were available to them. Today the definition of pasta is regarded as a preparation of flour and liquid with the optional addition of salt.

Filled pastas or tortelli made from the northern fresh version of pasta was not just another variation on the theme but developed hand in hand as its name suggests with pies or torta in the middle ages. According to Platina “the dish we generally call torta probably takes its name from the fact that the vegetables that are generally used in its preparation are cut up and crushed [tòrte, cioè strizzate]”. Outside Italy the word ravioli is generally used to refer to stuffed pasta, but ravioli, as Albert Capatti and Massimo Montanari explain in Italian Cuisine a Cultural History, actually refers only to the filling, while tortello refers to the casing. Raviolo originally had an independent existence as a blended mixture that was fried or boiled in broth. Historically raviolo is made of meat and a tortello’s filling is meatless.

Not only is pasta etymology a confusion to untangle, but add to it the complex geometry that has resulted in hundreds of different shapes that should only be paired with specific sauces and one is doomed to commit a sin of some sort. Food historians explain that different pasta shapes brought variety to a meal that often consisted of the same ingredients, especially in the poorer south.

Most pasta names are derived from the objects which they resemble (orecchiette little ears, farfallle butterflies, spaghetti strings) or from actions used to prepare the dough (tagliatelle cut, malfatti roughly made, passatelli passed) or to eat the pasta (pappardelle gobble up).

“Centuries of Italian invention, industry, agriculture, hunger and politics have shaped pasta into its myriad of forms and flavours. The startling diversity we wonder at in the natural world is mirrored in microcosm in pasta. Evolution is at work,” writes Jacob Kenedy in The Geometry of Pasta. Although pasta has evolved through the centuries, cheese, possibly enriched with spices, was the obligatory flavouring from the outset. “All cookbooks confirm this, and not even the new and successful combination of pasta with tomato sauce, which was first introduced around the end of the eighteenth century and fully established by the 1820’s, would really change things, ” explain Capatti and Montanari.

The most significant step in the evolution of pasta is probably the cooking time. The term al dente is one of the first Italian terms that culinary students learn today, but pasta was not always served “to the tooth” or firm to the bite. In the fifteenth century Maestro Martino instructed that for Sicilian Macaroni: “The macaroni must be boiled for a period of two hours.” But already in the early 1600’s it starts to change with Giovanni Del Turco stating that the appropriate time to cook pasta should not be too long. With Italy only unified in 1861 the development of pasta was not restricted to north and south but also included regional developments, with some recipes and techniques changing every few kilometres. The national revolution meant the takeover of the south by the north and also entailed a revolution in Italy’s culinary image. Capatti and Montanari quotes Franco La Cecla’s description: “the Mediterranean blanket, of which macaroni constitutes an essential part, is drawn further toward the north.”

Today dried and fresh pasta is enjoyed all over Italy and regional classics eaten by all. Although many rules are observed (see below) it is a preparation that continues to evolve. But before you apply creative license know that playing with certain recipes is sacrilege – Bolognese sauce must be served with fresh egg based tagliatelle.

Guidelines to prepare more authentic pasta:

  • Serve short shapes with chunky sauces and long pasta with smooth sauces.
  • Egg pasta is traditionally served with butter sauces.
  • Fish pasta dishes are not finished with cheese, just olive oil (so no Parmesan!)
  • Pasta dishes from the South of Italy are generally finished with Pecorino and pasta dishes from the North of Italy with Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano.
  • Pasta water should taste like the ocean. Season it well.
  • Never add oil to your pasta water. Once the pasta is coated with oil the sauce will not cling to it.
  • Do not break spaghetti, or any long shaped pastas. It is a sin.
  • Before serving, pasta and sauces are combined in the pan and emulsified with a bit of cooking liquid, olive oil or butter and cheese. (unless fish)
  • Sauce should stick to the pasta and not pool in the bottom of the bowl.
  • Pasta should be eaten with only a fork, and you are still not allowed to cut the spaghetti!
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