Spaghetti

 

If pasta is a symbol of Italy, spaghetti (better: ‘spaghetto’, as this is the singular form) is the poster boy for pasta. So this delicious dish must be Italian… must it not? Well, as a matter of fact the answer is not so straightforward. Of course Italy has always known how to make a great pasta: you can even see a fresco depicting an ancient recipe and the relevant cooking tools inside an Etruscan tomb from the Fourth century before Christ! Fact is, however, that boiling a dried paste of flour and water doesn’t exactly take a genius to invent. Therefore pasta – or something very close to it – has long been present in many cultures around the world.

One of them was the Persian empire, in the Sixth century. Here the nobility ate something pretty similar to ravioli, and the discarded cuts from their preparation were left to the servants, who saved them by drying… after shaping the dough in thin stripes. According to a local story, one day the son of a ruling noble wanted to visit the kitchen of their palace, and he discovered the pasta. «They stand up as straight as my father’s soldiers!» he commented.
As it happens, ‘soldier’ in ancient Farsi was spahi, and this is the name under which that particular type of pasta reached Sicily. By a strange coincidence, ‘spahi’ sounds remarkably like the Italian word spaghi, meaning ‘strings’. By extension, small strings are called – you guessed it – ‘spaghetti’. Evidently, the name stuck.

For many centuries, spaghetti were eaten with goat cheese and ground black pepper (what we call today ‘spaghetti cacio e pepe’) just like every other type of pasta. Then two things happened around 1820. The first was the introduction of tomato and, immediately thereafter, of tomato sauce as a pasta condiment. The other was… the invention of the spaghetti fork, with four prongs instead of three. This was designed under request of king Federico II of the Borbonic court, who couldn’t stand eating spaghetti with his hands. He was right: three well-spaced prongs are just no good to roll up spaghetti – try it yourself! The new fork did not became common until many years later, however, and that is why you can see barbaric pictures of people digging into spaghetti with their fingers up to the early 1900s. Today everything is much more civilized, including an European Union ruling according to which the only type of pasta that can be called ‘spaghetti’ is made of durum wheat semolina, the most common type of wheat. It is no coincidence that in Northern Italy, where soft wheat is also grown, you can frequently find spaghetti made with pasta all’uovo, handmade and including egg in the dough. Yet, apparently, they are not the real thing.