Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Under The Spaghetti Tree: Part 2

Sophia Loren once said that “everything you see, I owe to spaghetti”. It’s a maxim that could well apply to a nation. Virtually every person in the country, whatever their generation, whatever their background, has grown up with spaghetti. A collective memory, spaghetti is intrinsic to the national psyche. It is one of the few great unifying forces in a country of regional dialects.

A few miles from where I live, just outside Parma, there’s a huge Barilla pasta factory. As we return from a long journey, it looms up from the side of the road like a beacon and I know we are minutes from home. A few years back Barilla launched an advertising campaign with the catchphrase ‘Dové C’é Barilla, C’è Casa’ – where there is Barilla, there’s home. Like all good advertising campaigns it bore more than a modicum of truth. The sentimental chord struck by the advertisement was the notion that pasta and home are somehow synonymous.

I never did eat spaghetti freshly picked from the spaghetti tree (see my last post) – I just assumed it wasn’t in season.  But that never stopped my mother. On the annual family pilgrimage from the north of Ireland down to the south of Italy my mother would always pack a few packets of spaghetti in the boot of the car for the trip – enough to get us from Belfast to the outskirts of Naples. At the time it never occurred to me how odd we must have looked to other motorists passing by: three children sitting around a fold-up table in a lay-by somewhere on the other side of Dublin watching as my mother, stooped over a camper’s stove,  ladled spaghetti onto plastic plates while my father grated pecorino cheese directly over the top. We were eating spaghetti cacio e pepe (the classic spaghetti with pecorino and pepper), but to my brother, sister and I at the time, it was just ‘spaghetti cheese’.  

Spaghetti was just as much a part of my childhood as bedtime stories, the school playground and Saturday night baths. We must have looked every bit the mangiamaccheroni – macaroni eaters – who used to eat spaghetti with their hands on the streets of Naples (we used forks, of course!). The invention of the mechanised press in the latter part of the 18th century meant that dried pasta, for the first time, could be produced in large quantities and at lower cost. The population of Naples was rising rapidly and the people were hungry. In a few short years, pasta secca (dried pasta) became the symbol of the city. It was cucina povera (poor people’s food) for the masses. In 1840 the first industrial pasta plant opened in Torre Annunziata, just south of Naples. A few years later, in 1844, the first recipe for pasta with a tomato sauce appeared in a Neapolitan cookbook.

Versatile, inexpensive and nutritious, the craze that defined a city quickly engulfed a nation. Large industrial dried pasta factories in Liguria and Sicily shipped pasta to every port in the country. A string of others were soon established in and around Naples. And Italians, a nation of emigrants, carried it with them in their suitcases to every corner of the globe. I like to think of my grandparents, years ago when they first came to Ireland, disembarking from a ship onto Belfast docks, a strange and unfamiliar city, with nothing but the clothes they owned and a few packets of spaghetti – a taste of home.


  1. Cacio e pepe is one of the options in a local trattoria in an adjoining village. It is not something I would choose, but I knew what you were talking about. I love that you are sharing some of your past with your readers Mario :-)

  2. Cheesy spaghetti was a childhood favourite of mine Cathy. Hopefully my past won't send readers to sleep!:-()

  3. Well it won't send me to sleep Mario, as it is interesting. I like finding out about people and their lives :)

  4. I have said it before that I like your recipes, Mario, Italian food the way it should be, not ponced up for the British appetite.

    Love it!

  5. Thanks George. The classics are classics for good reason - Italians will still be cooking spaghetti cacio e pepe 50 years from now!