Contrary to popular belief, pasta did exist in Italy prior to Marco Polo bringing back noodles from China.
Sicily had dried pasta in the 12th century (two hundred years before Marco Polo returned bearing the Chinese version of pasta – noodles). Dried pasta had been introduced by Arab traders who had been using it for around a thousand years in a form we know as lasagna (known to the Romans as laganum and to the Greeks as laganon).
The term ‘pasta’ only became current in the second half of the twentieth century. Prior to that it referred to a food made with dough (either savoury or sweet). What we know as pasta was referred to as ‘macaroni’, meaning all kinds of dried pasta, a term that had been in use for five centuries. It originated from Sicily and spread to Sardinia and Naples and was then shipped through to Genoa to the main ports of Europe. Thomas Jefferson ate it in France and was so taken by it that he had trunkloads sent home, becoming the first person to introduce dried pasta to the US in the early 19th century. His annual order was fifty pounds, enough for two hundred and fifty meals! He doubled it in 1817, plus an extra fifty pounds for his grandson, and doubled it again the following year. Now that’s a lot of pasta.
And so to eat. Which pasta for which dish? So many choices. I love perusing the range of pasta available at the Italian grocer’s and trying to think what each one can be used for. I’m making a mushroom ragout and was torn between a fresh papadelle and a dried squisito. Decisions. I opted for the squisito not just because its so pretty but because of its lovely soft texture when its cooked (squisito needs a longer cook – in fact its best if you overcook it).
For my ragout, I’m using a mixture of shitake, swiss browns, cup mushrooms, shimeji (which remind me of those magic mushrooms – goldentops – that we used to pick) and dried porcini (reconstituted in water). I like to have a range of textures and flavours as well as sizes (I chop them into different sizes – makes the dish more interesting). Saute in batches so they become golden brown then make a stock with chopped celery, carrots, garlic, onion and thyme. Reduce the stock to about 2 cups. Add the strained stock and the porcini water to the mushrooms and finish off with some chopped tarragon and parsley.
ps: I’ve recently discovered porcini powder – a wonderful way of intensifying the flavour of a mushroom dish without having to spend a fortune for large quantities of porcini. You simply add a couple of teaspoons to the mix of mushrooms and you’re in mushroom heaven.