The pasta of the people: Rediscovering the cuisine of Italy’s 14th century citizenry

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The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy is known for its cheese and bechamel sauce, but minestre, a thick soup made with grain, was the food of the citizenry. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

An Italian Feast includes over 800 recipes from the 109 provinces of Italy's 20 regions. "You've got to distinguish between the historic cuisine [of Italy], the food of the rich, and the food of the common people," says James Beard Award-winning food writer Clifford A. Wright. Up until the mid-20th century, Italy didn't have a middle class, so there was either the elevated cuisine of the aristocracy or, at the opposite end of the social spectrum, the food of peasants. La Grassa, the well-known nickname for the city of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna, translates to "the fat" and refers to the richness of the cuisine. 

After the Black Death in the mid-14th century, much of the land was left uncultivated, giving game animals more space, so even the poorer classes ate more meat. Simple, frugal foods, rooted in barbarian traditions — a loaf of bread, a couple of liters of wine, a misestre, a focaccia made of beans and millet spread with animal fat — were eaten several times a day. Minestre, a thick soup that contains a grain, was the dish of the citizenry.

The pasta of the North is made of soft wheat and eggs, as opposed to hard wheat and water farther south. Tagliatelle is most often served with a traditional Ragu Alla Bolognese. The first depictions of pasta being made are from a 14th century health manual called the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a Latin translation of an Arabic medicinal book written by Ibn Butlan in Bagdad. 

Wright shares a more obscure recipe from the province of Modena called "calzagatti." Translated to "drives the cat away," the typical peasant dish is made with corn and beans. Legend has it the dish was created by accident when an old woman tripped on a cat while preparing polenta and beans, combining the two.

Wright's latest book, An Italian Feast, spans over 1,200 pages.

An Italian Feast
by Clifford A. Wright is a follow up to his James Beard Award-winning cookbook, A Mediterranean Feast. Photo courtesy of Clifford A. Wright.