Object lesson No 58

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Around this time of year, all over Italy, peasants go out into the fields and begin the pasta harvest. It's a beautiful sight. Strands of spaghetti hang from the pasta trees, each of uniform length and consistency, the result of years of careful pruning and tending by farmers devoted to the Italian national dish.

Not really. But it's a sign of pasta's not-so-distant past as an exotic import that when this April Fool's hoax was broadcast by the BBC's Panorama in 1957, more than 200 people rang up to ask after these fantastic trees.

Pasta, made from a paste of water and hard durum wheat flour, was being eaten in Italy nearly 1,000 years ago. The Arab geographer, Al Idrisi, records that in AD1150 a flour-based food "in the shape of strings" was produced in Sicily, and an inventory from 1279 describes a basketful of macaroni. Both put paid to another popular myth - that Marco Polo came back from his travels a few years later with the idea for pasta after sampling some noodles in the Far East.

Making pasta was a laborious business - it had to be kneaded in long troughs by foot, rolled out by hand, cut and left in the sun to dry. This put it beyond the budget of odinary folk until the early 19th century, when the kneading machine and hydraulic press were invented, and famous names of pasta-making such as Barilla, Buitoni and De Cecco began turning out the tortellini.

Pasta's tasty buddy, the base for Bolognese and many other sauces - the tomato - didn't really feature in Italian cooking until 100 years ago, and pasta is still traditionally eaten there as a starter, often with little more than olive oil and cheese or butter.

Elaborately engineered machines can now create several hundred varieties of pasta, and there's a reason why every one, from agnolotti to zita, looks the way it does. Long stringy types are best for smooth sauces, while grooved tubes and concave shapes hold chunkier accompaniments. But some of their names, inspired by body parts and small animals, aren't so appetising. There's vermicelli (little worms), orrechiette (little ears), linguine (little tongues), paglia e fieno (straw and hay) and farfalle (butterflies).

Oh, and if you want to grow your own, the BBC's suggested method of propagation back in 1957 was to "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best".

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