The vexed question whether the ancient Romans ate pasta is nowhere near a solution. Finds of spaghetti remains are a pretty unlikely occurrence. That said it is no reason not to indulge in some blue sky research.

The invention of pasta, basically a combination of a variety of flours with either water or egg, certainly precedes the introduction of the tomato though the two are now firmly associated. Pasta can be seasoned with a variety of tomato-less sauces from stewed meat to all sorts of vegetable concoctions like pesto.

There are four basic methods of making pasta.

By far the most widespread, these days, is dry pasta, a mix of durum wheat and water. The dough is then processed by mechanical means into the shapes we are familiar with (spaghetti, rigatoni, penne etc.) and dried. Until we find the right machinery in the Roman archaeological record we can forget about it.

The other three methods are more promising as they can be executed by hand as well as by mechanical means.

The first one requires a flat surface and a rolling pin. The starting point is a stiff dough of eggs and flour (it does not have to be durum wheat). This is rolled out to a fine sheet and cut in ribbons. The end result are tagliatelle and papparelle and so on.

Even less technologically challenging is the family of pastas mixed and shaped entirely by hand. One example are ‘trofie’ They have recently hit the UK market: you see them in your local Sainsbury’s (but in the dry form which is wrong, in Italy they are fresh). Trofie are still hand made in Liguria by the local housewives out of a dough of wheat and chestnut flour mixed with water and rubbed between the fingers into narrow spirals that are about two inches long. They are traditionally eaten with pesto. I suspect that a fact finding mission in the unspoilt rural depth of Italy, for which I volunteer for a small fee, would uncover more instances of this family.

Finally there is a technique which I have encountered in a recent visit in Germany in the Stuttgart region in the Suabian Alps, in an area not far from the German and the Raetian Limes which had a strong Roman presence. There I was introduced to a traditional local dish with a German name I have forgotten and was acquainted with yet another way of making pasta.

The dough of egg and flour, in this case, is rather soft. It is placed on a board and shaved in slivers with a thin tablet with a sharp edge (suspiciously looking like the wooden lunate slickers from Carlisle and from Vindolanda, which according to the commentators, were used for scraping and stretching hides).

A pasta piece
Figure 1. A pasta piece

The pieces are then dropped into boiling water. As it cooks, each bit about three inches long curls up at the edges (fig. 1). The pasta is retrieved with a perforated ladle and seasoned traditionally with the sauce of a meat stew.

The shape of the final product is very similar, if not identical, to a kind of pasta I had come across in central and southern Italy but only in the dry machine-made form. It bears the bizarre name of strangolapreti or strozzapreti (something to do with the strangling or choking of priests). I had always been intrigued by its design (and by its name for which I have no ready explanation). Although it is now machine made, it maintains an irregular format which suggests it was originally hand -made, perhaps by the method I witnessed in Germany. It is tempting to think that it was introduced there by the military on the move and that the method and recipe became incorporated into the local traditions.

Paola Pugsley