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BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Pasta – The Italian Food that Shaped the World by Luca Cesari

By Hector MacKenzie

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Profile Books

£16.99 (hardback)

A Brief History of Pasta: The story of Italy in 10 dishes.
A Brief History of Pasta: The story of Italy in 10 dishes.

IF your idea of pasta is the dried little pellets that spill out of a shrink-wrapped pack of macaroni from the supermarket, then you will definitely learn something from this book.

And chances are that even if you fancy yourself as something of a connoisseur of the flexible foodstuff so readily associated with Italy, you'll still learn loads...

Flick forward to the 25-plus pages of lovingly curated footnotes and references at the end of the book and you'll realise that food historian Luca Cesari takes his research very seriously. His cookbook shelves alone must groan under the weight of so much amassed knowledge.

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We learn that while pasta has been an Italian staple since the days of ancient Rome – enjoyed by peasants, royalty and proud emigrants around the world alike – its evolution to what we know today has been an ever-changing and truly fascinating one.

We learn the humble origins of fettucine Alfredo that lie in a back-street trattoria in Rome and meet the people who have shaped pasta's history – from the traders who brought pesto to the world to the celebrity chef who sparked national outrage adding an unpeeled clove of garlic to his recipe for amatriciana sauce.

If the lovingly researched stories leave your mouth watering, have no fear as the book is also helpfully packed with recipes. Many of these look wonderfully simple and are likely to have even the most reluctant chef reaching for his apron and chopping board.

The relationships between different cuisines are also teased out by Cesari who reveals how contrary to popular opinion "pasta does not just belong to Italy". He points to Moroccan couscous, Spanish fideua and German maultaschen and Ukranian varenyky to name but a few.

He observes: "In the end, pasta is just one way of eating a dough of water and flour: bake it, and it's a pie, flatbread or pizza; dip it into boiling water and it's a fritter (plain or filled), but boil it in water and you've entered the vast world of pasta."

Every place has its own way of cooking what is more or less the same dish. Italian cuisine, he says, "is built from a myriad of recipes forming an intricate mosaic whose tiles are hard to make out; the differences are sometimes minimal and may even hinge on family traditions."

This, then, goes some way to explaining why he has such a richly packed cupboard of stories to tell and recipes with which to tempt us.

He takes ten dishes – including carbonara, gnocchi, lasagne and spaghetti al pomodoro – and delves into their history with side servings of fascinating anecdotes and generous serving of culinary know-how to inspire you to try for yourself.

Foodies are sure to get a lot out of this volume as will historians interested in a fresh angle on the subject. It is, in essence, the story of Italy in ten dishes.


In A Brief History of Pasta, culinary historian Luca Cesari discovers the humble origins of fettuccine Alfredo that lie in a back-street trattoria in Rome, how Genovese sauce became a Neapolitan staple and what conveyor belts have to do with making spaghetti. Meet the people who have shaped pasta's history, from the traders who brought pesto to the world to the celebrity chef who sparked national outrage by adding an unpeeled garlic clove to his recipe for spaghetti amatriciana.

Filled with mouth-watering recipes and engrossing tales, this book tells the story of Italy in ten dishes.

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