The origins of pasta are very ancient and much disputed. A couple of things are certain, however. Pasta was NOT brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo, when he returned in from his long, long journey there in 1295. There is also ample evidence that commercial pasta-making was already well and truly established in Italy by this time, but none at all that it was actually invented there.
Was pasta ‘invented’ in China? That requires a decision on whether ‘noodles’ and ‘pasta’ are the same thing. They are, essentially. The only difference I can think of is that pasta is generally made from wheat (historically, anyway – things such as gluten-free pasta are very modern inventions), whereas Asian noodles may also made from many different ingredients. We tend to think of ‘noodles’ as being Asian – but the word has a German origin, and there are some wonderful contemporary German dishes with noodles. Then again, some early recipes for ‘noodles’ sound more like dumplings, as do early mentions of macaroni, and as for ravioli - some seem to have been more like meatballs. The linguistic confusion continues throughout the history of pasta, and certainly in eighteenth and nineteenth century cookery books, the word ‘macaroni’ appears to be used for any sort of pasta.
To unravel the story of pasta requires unravelling the pasta-word itself, which is a seemingly difficult task even for the experts. Pasta originally simply meant dough, and there are echoes of this use in cookery books of very recent times, which instruct one to make a ‘paste’ for a pie, for example.
Another thing is sure about pasta. When it did start to become known and used in Britain, it quickly proved adaptable to that great British love – sweet puddings.
To make a vermicella pudding.
You must take the yolks of two eggs, and mix it up with as much flour as will make it pretty stiff, so as you can roll it out very thin, like a thin wafer; and when it is so dry as you can roll it up together without breaking, roll as close as you can; then with a sharp knife begin at one end, and cut it as thin as you can, have some water boiling, with a little salt in it, put in the paste, and just give it a boil for a minute or two; then throw it into a sieve to drain, then take a pan, lay a layer of vermicelli and a layer of butter, and so on. When it is cool, beat it up well together, and melt the rest of the butter and pour on it; beat it well (a pound of butter is enough, mix half with the paste, the other half melt) grate the crumb of a penny loaf, and mix in; beat up ten eggs, and mix in a small nutmeg grated, a gill of sack [sherry], or some rose-water, a tea-spoonful of salt, beat it all well together, and sweeten it to your taste; grate a little lemon-peel in, and dry two large blades of mace and beat them fine. You may, for a change, add a pound of currants nicely washed and picked clean; butter the pan or dish you bake it in and pour in your mixture. It will take an hour and a half baking, but the oven must not be too hot. If you lay a good thin crust round the bottom of the dish or sides, it will be better.
The Art of Cookery, (London,1747) Hannah Glasse
Simmer an oz. or two of the pipe-sort, in a pint of milk, and a bit of lemon and cinnamon, tender; put it into a dish with milk, two or three eggs, but only one white, sugar, nutmeg, a spoonful of rose-water, and half a glass of wine. Bake with a paste around the edge.
A layer of orange-marmalade, or raspberry jam, in a macaroni pudding, for a change, is a great improvement.
The domestic encyclopedia, or, A dictionary of facts and useful knowledge.(Philadelphia, 1821) A.F.M Willich and T. Cooper.
Quotation for the Day.
Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.