Reviewer: Paul Burke

Publisher: Europa Compass   23rd September 2021

ISBN: 978-1787703285   HB

This short but scholarly work is a very entertaining account of the cultural significance and history of the Italian dish – spaghetti with tomato sauce. I should note basil, olive oil and chili pepper are essential ingredients in the recipe that has forged its way into Mediterranean hearts over the centuries. Nothing else is added to the dish under this particular microscope, although the discussion, of course, gets around to cheese. 

It’s the first time I’ve taken a dive into history via the culinary route but it’s fascinating to see how the past can be opened up by the everyday things in ways that political analysis can’t illuminate. Mostly diet is something we take for granted, not so Massimo Montanari, Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University, scholar in Food Studies and principal founder of the international journal Food & History. He revels in the exploration of manuscripts and recipes related to our eating habits.

Montanari starts with busting myths. The concept of origin suggests a starting point, a linear progression, almost as if the course of events are down to fate. There is no single beginning. This study moves away from the idea of one momentous point in time rather attributing the development of the dish to local factors and identity. That is what has shaped developments and recipes. If not why would spaghetti and tomato sauce not be a dish everywhere pasta became a food stuff? Montanari next step is to challenge some of the romanticism of food history, the stories we like to retell. Namely, that great dishes are happy accidents, secret recipes from secluded monasteries or alchemical inventions. So to the by lie of pasta – spoiler alert. Marco Polo did not bring pasta back from China, that myth started almost two hundred years later at the hands of a misinterpretation of his writings, (a wilfully wrong or simply ignorant translation – unlike this one!). An early example of fake news.

Each ingredient has its own story. More likely one of the dishes’ origins began with unleavened bread in the Middle East and Egypt. Pasta coming to the European diet via Greco-Roman recipes. I should advise look away now if you are of a weak disposition – some suggestions for cooking from the Renaissance period involve boiling the pasta for a long time, up to two hours! A more recognised form of the pasta we now know made its way from Arab ruled Sicily to Naples, over the centuries, in both places manufacturing was established. I don’t intend to take you through the whole history, after all that’s what the book is for, each short but intriguing chapter bringing us closer to today’s dish. We discover recipes and food writing from the past, the introduction of sauces, white (cheese) versus red (tomato) and many fascinating details. On the basis you are what you eat this really does say much about us.

Finally we come back to Britain’s role in this adventure. I knew it. We may not have invented spaghetti but our part in the story is indelible to history. It was an episode of Panorama on 1st April, 1957, with a brief feature called The Spaghetti Tree, voiced by esteemed broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. The report told of the bumper harvest in Switzerland showing a family picking the plentiful spaghetti from their trees. At the time spaghetti as a fresh product was little known in the UK and so I leave you to decide whether the good people of this sceptred isle were fooled by the prestigious documentary show’s April fool’s joke. This is now considered one of the great spoof TV moments. 

This is a fun, knowledgeable and well written book.