Medieval Pasta: History, Preparation, and Recipes
by Dame Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina of Robakovna
XLII. Pasta (Trij)
from the Tacuinum of Vienna
When we think of the word “pasta,” most of us think of Italian cuisine. Lasagna layered with red sauce and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and raviolis are some that come to mind. As the catch phrase goes in Thescorre, “pasta has been around for centuries,” right?
Yes and no. Yes, pasta was used in Medieval dishes, but it wasn't prepared quite the way we are used to eating it today in America. And no, it’s not exclusively Italian… it didn’t even originate in Italy.
First, what is pasta?
It’s a starch made from a grain flour – generally wheat or durum wheat (semolina) – and water, or flour and eggs. It can also be made from rice, buckwheat, or other grains. The flour & water or flour & eggs are combined to make a stiff dough, which is kneaded and rolled out, then sliced, formed, or extruded into a huge variety of shapes. It is generally boiled and served with a sauce or layered/combined with meat, vegetables, and cheese and then baked..
The history of pasta is a somewhat debated subject. It may date back as far as the 4th Century Etruscan and Ostrogothic periods1. There are records of it in Chinese, Indian, Mongol, Persian, and Arabic cuisine going back to at least the 9th Century and a thousands before that, mostly in the form of noodles, according to the Oxford Companion to Food.2 The popular belief is that explorer Marco Polo brought pasta back home to Venice after his travels to China in the 13th Century. However, according to Tannahill, noodles were introduced into Venice from the Middle East as early as the 11th Century; for instance, Sicilian inheritance records from that time include “one basket full of maccheroni.”
Let's start at the first references to pasta in Europe: the ancient Romans served “lagana,” or strip pasta, which appears to have been close to lasagna or tagliatelle. In 300 B.C.E., the Greek dramatist Aristophanes refers to a wheat pasta that seems close to ravioli.3 Four hundred years later, Galen mentions pasta in his books on medicine and health, listing it among other starches that may cause kidney stones and flatulence if it is not properly kneaded, salted, or baked.4
Pasta making, Scappi, 1570
There doesn't appear to be any mention of a pasta-like dish in Anthimus's De observatione ciborum (6th Century); nor are there in the Libellus de arte coquinaria, the 13th Century collection of Danish, Icelandic, and Low German recipes that is likely the next “cookbook.”
However, boiled noodles do appear in the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century, proving the introduction of pasta in Spain. Forme of Cury, the seminal 14th Century English text, contains several recipes for lasagne variants. There are several mentions of buckwheat or rye flour noodles in 14th Century Polish cuisine5. At least one recipe appears in the 15th Century Spanish cookbooks (deNola), and many different kinds of pasta are included in varoius Italian works, including Epulario, Platina, and the Neapolitan Collection. Platina lists numerous recipes, ncluding Roman noodles, grain noodles, Sicilian macaroni, and vermicelli, noting that once dried, “they will last two or more years”!6
“Pasta was a... speciality of Mediterranean regions, a natural product of a wheat-based agriculture. It was used both dried and fresh – the dried pasta was generally bought from a merchant, the fresh pasta prepared at home. Pasta was known in Sicily from at least the 11th Century, and by the 14th Century was commercially available in several forms. Macaroni and lasagne were made from semolina, the less expensive versions from wheat flour. In medieval Florence, pasta makers (lasagnati) had their own guild; their product came in sheets 3 to 4 cm. wide (about 1.5 inches), with one edge crinckled. Even the Medieval era, Italy seems to have had more forms of pasta than its neighbors, and the terminology reflected this variety. The term “lasagne” was applied principally to fresh pasta, while commercial pasta was known as vermicelli, macaroni, fidelli, and tria... In one of the tales of the Decameron, Boccaccio describes the mythical land of Bengodi, where people do nothing but cook macaroni and ravioli in chicken stock, and dig into the nearby mountain of grated parmesan when they want to eat.”7
Weird Pasta Fact #1: it may have led directly to the popularity of the fork. According to The Medieval Kitchen, the fork was in use from the 14th Century in taverns and manors alike, for eating pasta8. Eating food with the fingers and a knife had been common practice, but eating pasta this way is difficult. Initially, a pointed stick was used to eat hot pasta, but the fork was eminently more practical.
Medieval Pasta Dishes
These recipes generally direct the cook to boil the pasta in broth (not water) and serve them strewn with cheese, butter, and sweet spice mixtures such as poudre douce.9
For instance, “losyns” is a dish that seems to be the ancestor of today’s lasagne. Although it contained layers of pasta and cheese, it did not have any tomato sauce (tomatoes are New World) or meat – and the seasoning was sweet, not herbal. The same goes for “macrows” or “makerouns,” which was basically Medieval mac 'n’ cheese. Gnocchi did exist in the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t made with potatoes (which are also New World) – it was made with Parmesan cheese. Period ravioli were the closest to what you’d get from a supermarket today: pasta filled with cheese or meat mixtures.
Comparing the Recipes
The following are a sampling of recipes that appear throughout our period of study:
Makerouns, #95, Forme of Cury, 14th Century English
Take and makke a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerve it on peces, and cast hym on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it, and butter imelte, caste bynethen and above as losyns; and serve forth.
This dish is not baked after it is assembled, so the heat of the pasta layers has to melt the grated cheese. The cheese used was probably a hard cheese, since the recipe specifies grating it. Note that there is no salt in the recipe – this is very common in Medieval recipes. There are two theories as to why: either the cook expected salt to be added at the table, or the dish didn't need it due to the inherent saltiness of the stock or salted meat used in the dish.10
Losyns, #50, Forme of Cury
Take good broth and do in an erthen pot. Take flour of pandemayne and make þereof past with water, and make þerof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it harde and seeþ it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in disshes with powdour douce, and lay theron loseyns isolde as hoole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyse or thryse, & serve it forth.
This pasta dish is also not baked or reheated after assembly, so it needs to be prepared and served quickly. The name refers to the lozenge shape of the pasta. Like most Medieval pasta recipes, this was cooked in broth, not water, and combined with cheese. This cheese appears to be a soft one - maybe Brie or mozzarella?
Losyngys opyn, #133 Beinecke Manuscript, 15th Century
Make a past of paryd floure, knedyn with watyr, sygure, safron & salt; make hem in foylez, then cut thy losyngz of the breed of thy hond or lasse. Frye hem in good oyle & serve hem foreth, four or fyve yn a dysche.
The term “open” appears to refer to the absence of sauce (Pleyn Delit). This pasta is a fried sweet dough, almost like wafers.
Of lasagne, Liber de coquina, 14th Century Italian
To make lasagne take fermented dough and make into as thin a shape as possible. Then divide it into squares of three fingerbreadths per side. Then take salted boiling water and cook those lasagne in it. And when they are fully cooked, add grated cheese. And, if you like, you can also add good powdered spices and powder them on them, when they are in the trencher. Then put on a layer of lasagne and powder again, and on top another layer and powder, and continue until the trencher or bowl is full. Then eat them by taking them up with a pointed stick.
Note that the Italians didn't bake or reheat the recipe either… and it's eaten with a stick.
Ravieles, #8, Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections, 14th Century
Take fine flour and sugar and make pasta dough; take good cheese and butter and cream them together; then take parsley, sage, and shallots, chop them finely, and put them in the filling. Put the boiled ravieles on a bed of grated cheese and cover them with more grated cheese, then reheat them.
This is a typical filled pasta of cheese and herbs, but note that it calls for reheating after the boiling step.
Rauioles, Forme of Cury, 14th Century
Take wete chese and grynde hit smal, & medle hit wyt eyren & saffron and a god quantite of buttur. Make a thin foile of dowe & close hem þerin as turteletes, & cast hem in boylyng watur, & sethe hem þerin. Take hot burrur meltede & chese ygratede, & ley þi ravioles in dissches; & ley þi hote buttur wyt gratede chese bineþe & aboue, & cast þereon powdur douce.
This one calls for a “wet” cheese? Perhaps a cream cheese or ricotta? It directly refers to another pasta recipe, tartlettes, which is filled with pork instead of cheese. (See below.)
Ravioli, #10, The Neapolitan Recipe Collection, 15th Century Italian
Get a pound and a half of old cheese and a little fresh creamy cheese, and a pound of bacon or of loin of veal that should be well boiled, then chopped; get ground fragrant herbs, pepper, cloves, ginger and saffron, adding in a well ground breast of chicken; mix all of this well together; make a thin dough and wrap the mixture in it the size of a nut; set these ravioli to cook in the fat broth of a capon or of some other good meat, adding a little saffron, and let them boil for half an hour; then set them out in dishes, garnished with a mixture of grated cheese and good spices.
Look! Ravioli with chicken! However, it has the old standbys of cheese and spices too.
Good Calisoni, #160, The Neapolitan Recipe Collection, 15th Century
Make a filling like the one I described for Marzipan Tort among Lenten Dishes; mix up a dough with sugar and rose-water and spread it out as if you were making ravioli; wrap the mixture up in this dough, making as large or small as you wish.
Ravioli with a sweet filling.
Ravioli for Meat Days, Libro de arte coquinaria, 14th Century
To make twn platefuls: take a half libra of aged cheese and a little of another fat cheese and a libra of fat hog's tripe or calf's head, and cook it in water until very tender. Then chop it well and take nice herbs, thoroughly chopped, and some pepper, cloves, and ginger; and if you add the chopped breast of a capon, so much the better. And mix all these things together. Then make the dough very thin and enclose the mixture in the dough as it should be. And these ravioli should be no larger tha half a chestnut; and cook them in a broth of capon or good meat, colored yellow by saffron when it boils. And let them boil for the time two paternosters. Then serve and put on top grated cheese and sweet spices mixed together. You can make similar ravioli with breast of pheasant, partridge, and other birds.
Lots of variations possible with this recipe,depending upon the meat, cheese, and herbs!
Rafioli Commun de Herbe Vantazati, Libro per Cuoco, 15th Century Italian
If you want to make ravioli with herbs or any other filling, take herbs and trim them and wash them; then boil them briefly and take them out and squeeze out the water and chop them finely with a knife and put them in a mortar with fresh cheese and dried cheese, eggs, mild and strong spices and grind all together to a paste. Then make a soft pasta as you would lasagne and cut out circle with a beaker and make ravioli. When all are made put them to cook and when properly cooked sprinkle with spices and good cheese and they are good like this.
Notice how close the Italian recipe is to the English one?
Ravioli ready to serve of herbs fantastic, Libro di cucina, 15th Century
If you want to make ravioli of herbs or of other things, take herbs and peel (take leaves only) and wash well; then boil it a little and pull them out and squeeze away all the water. Chop with a knife and put in a mortar and take cheese fresh and strained, egg and spices sweet and strong and mix well together and make a paste. Then take thin pasta in the way of lasagne and take a large amount and make the ravioli. When they are made put to cook and when they are well cooked powder above enough spices with good cheese and they are good.
To make ravioli, Das Kochbuch der Sabina Welserin, 1533, Germany
Take spinach and scald it as if you were making cooked spinach and chop it fine. Take approximately a handfull after it is chopped, and cheese or roast chicken or capon that has been boiled or roasted. Then take twice as much cheese as spinach and meat the same amount, and beat 2 or 3 eggs thereinto and make a fine dough. Put salt and pepper thereinto and make a dough with wheat flour as if you were going to make a cake. When you have rolled it out, then put a little lump of filling at the edge of the dough and form it into a dumpling. And squeeze it together around the edges and place it in a meat broth and leave it there approximately as long as it takes to soft boil an egg. The meat should be chopped fine and the cheese finely grated.
To make small tortelli with pork belly, and of other things, that are called vulgarly little rings, L'Opera dell'arte del cucinare (Scappi), 1570
Take four pounds of fresh pork bell, without skin, and put it to boil in the way that it becomes well cooked. When it is cooked take it out of the broth and let it cool. Then chop it very small (minutely) with a knife, making sure that there is no bones or skin. Have also as much teat (belly?) of veal well cooked and chop it with this. And also a pound and a half of lean meat of young pig half roasted on the spit, or boiled with the belly. When everything is well chopped together add to it a pound of grated parmesan cheese, and another (pound) of fat cheese and six ounces of mozzarella or other fresh cheese that is not too salty grated. Add eight ounces of sugar, one ounce of ground ginger, three quarters of an ounce of pepper, three more (quarters) between cloves and nutmeg, six ounces of dried Corinth currants well cleaned. Add ten ounces of elecampane root (probably chicory), that has first been cooked under the coals or boiled and then peeled and ground in the mortar. Add eight fresh eggs beaten and enough saffron, and when this mixture has been made have ready a sheet of pasta made as described above. Make small rings like beans or chick peas and close them into their pieces in the way that they look like little hats. (What they are describing here is what we know as capelletti, little round pieces of pasta, filled, sealed and rolled back over on themselves.) When they are made let them rest for a while, and cook them in good meat broth, serve with cheese sugar and cinnamon above. These tortelletti in the winter will keep for a month, or more or less dependent on the place (stored) whether it is hotter or more humid. In the same way one can make them with belly of peppered pork or wild boar that is free of skin.
Tartlettes, #51, Forme of Cury, 14th Century
Take pork ysode and grynde it small with safroun; medle it with ayren, and raisouns of coraunce, and powdour fort and salt, and make a foile of dowh and close the fars therinne. Cast the tartletes in a panne with faire water boillyng and salt. Take of the clene flessh with oute ayren & boile it in gode broth. Case ther powdour douce and salt, and messe the tartletes in disshes & helde the sewe theronne.
Pork, saffron, and currant ravioli or tortelli – although it still calls for sweet spices in the form of poudre forte. However, this recipe specifically calls for salt.
Salma, An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century
Dough is taken and twisted and cut in small pieces and struck like a coin with a finger, and it is cooked in water until done. Then yoghurt is put with it and meat is fried with onion for it and mint and garlic are put with it.
Cressee, Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections
Here is another dish, which is called cressee. Take best white four and eggs, and make pasta dough; and in the pasta dough put fine, choice ginger and sugar. Take half of the pastry, which is coloured with saffron, and half white, and roll it out on a table to the thickness of you finger, then cut into strips the size of a piece of lath; stretch it out on a table as illustrated, then boil in water; then take a slotted spoon abd remove the cressees from the water; then arrange them on, and cover them with, grated cheese, add butter or oil, and serve
If you want some gnocchi, Frammento di un libro di cucina del sec. XIV, 14th Century
Take some fresh cheese and mash it, then take some flour and mix with egg yolks as in making migliacci. Put a pot full of water on the fire and, when it begins to boil, put the mixture on a dish and drop it into the pot with a ladle. And when they are cooked, place them on dishes and sprinkle with plenty of grated cheese.
Gnocchi are generally made with mashed potatoes nowadays, rather than these light cheese and egg dumplings.
Ryschewys close & Freyz, Harleian MS, 15th Century
Take Fygys, & grynd hem smal in a mortere with a lytil Oyle, & grynd with hym clowys & Maces; & than take it vppe in-to a vesselle, & cast ther-to Pynez, Saundrys, & Roysonys of Coraunce, & mencyd Datys, Pouder Pepir, Canel, Salt, Safroun; than take fyne past of lowre an water, Sugre, Safroun, & Salt, & make fayre cakys ther-of; than rolle thin stuf in thin hond, & couch it in the cakys, & kyt it, & folde hym as Ruschewys, & frye hem vppe in Oyle; and serue forth hote.
Fried fig pasta-pasta pastries!
Minestra di Tagliatelli, L’Opera
Mix two pounds of excellent white flour, three eggs, and lukewarm water, mixing them well on a table, then roll out thin and leave the dough to dry a little, trimming at the edges and when dry (but not so dry it crumbles) sprinkle with flour from the collender to prevent the dough from sticking. Take one end of the dough and roll it gently around the roller, then slice the dough with a sharp, wde knife. When the noodles are cut, lay them out and let them dry a little.
The difference here seems to be in the preparation of the dough, not the ingredients.
Hare with parardelle, La Singolare dottrina di M. Domenico Romoli, 1593
It is necessary that one has a fat hare, that has not been ripped open*1, and that is close to fresh, one makes a little cut, enough that from the right hand side one extracts the guts and intestines, put within two bunches of sage, rosemary and bay and let it rest enough that it becomes tender*2, then skin and singe it and lift out the liver and lungs and all the blood and put them in a clean pan. Cut all the front pieces of the hare*3, wash with water, with this (water) one will cook the lungs, and liver in the pan, in order that it is most bloody, and wash with this (water) a little of “pugnaticcio”*4 of domestic pig, that is that part where the pig was stabbed. Take a piece of good ham, fat and lean without bones, give a stamp (press it?) and put to boil with the washings of everything, skim one or two times, when the scum is large/high, make the broth that is black and full of blood; and if it’s own is not enough, take one*5 of pork. When it is skimmed put in a good quantity of crushed pepper and when it is cooked, take it out and put all the broth in a casserole well lined with tin, when it starts to boil, put in lasagna that is thin, delicate and tender/soft, of this make the bowl*6, eat the meat with peverata (pepper sauce).
To make a dish of Roman macaroni, L'Opera
Mix together one pound of flour with four ounces of crumb of white bread that has been soaked in warm goats milk, and four egg yolks, two ounces of sieved sugar. Blend this pasta together making sure that it is not too wet, knead well for half an hour on a table. Roll the dough into sheets with a rolling pin, leave it thicker than the one (recipe) above. Leave this sheet to dry, then with a disc cutter of iron or of wood cut the macaroni, making them thus, let them dry. You want to cook them in simple water, make them cook in a large pan with plenty of water and enough salt. When the water boils put in the macaroni, because if you put them in cold water they will sink to the bottom and become a single (lump) of pasta. As one makes every kind of thin pasta, boil them for half an hour, making sure that they are tender, but do not leave them to boil until they are well cooked. When they are cooked have ready a large silver, iron or ceramic plate that has been dusted heavily with grated cheese, sugar and cinnamon, and slices of fresh mozzarella. And put on some of these macaroni, that have been well drained of water. Above these macaroni sprinkle cheese, sugar and cinnamon, slices of mozzarella and little pieces of butter. In this way one makes three layers, and then sprinkle with rosewater and cover it with another plate, and leave it in the hot cinders or in a medium hot oven for half an hour and serve hot.
Potaje de Fideos, Libro de guisados, 1529, Spain
Clean the fideos of their filth, and when they are well-cleaned put a very clean pot on the fire with good fatty hen's broth or mutton broth that is well-salted; and when the broth begins to boil, cast the fideos into the pot with a piece of sugar; and when they are more than half cooked, cast goat or sheep milk into the pot with the hen's broth or mutton broth; or instead of that, almond milk, for that can never be lacking; and cook everything well together, and when the fideos are cooked, remove the pot from the fire and let it rest a little while; and prepare dishes, casting sugar and cinnamon upon them; but as I have said in the chapter on rice, many say that with pottages of this kind which are cooked with meat broth that one should not cast in either sugar or milk, but this is according to each one's appetite; and in truth, with fideos or rice cooked in meat broth, it is better to cast good grated cheese upon the dishes.
If you would make boiled dumplings, #119, Sabina Welser’s Cookbook
Then take chard, as much as you like, some sage, marjoram and rosemary, chop it together, also put grated cheese into it and beat eggs therein until you think that it is right. Take also cinnamon, cloves, pepper and raisins and put them into the dumpling batter. Let the dumplings cook, as one cooks a hard-boiled egg, then they are ready.
A German recipe for soft eggs noodles or dumplings with herbs and spices.
Spritzgebackenes, #82, Sabina Welser’s Cookbook
Then take one third quart of milk and let it boil and take wheat flour, as if you were making steamed buns, and take six or eight eggs and beat them in one after the other until the dough becomes very soft and put through a pastry bag and fry it slowly.
More German dumplings/pasta, only fried instead of boiled.
Kasha noodles and dumplings are included in late 16th Century Russian cuisine.11 Yet, there do not seem to be any mention of any pasta dishes in deLaVarenne’s The French Cook, Markham’s The English Hous-wife, or any of the other European Renaissance period cookbooks other than the Italian ones. What happened? Did flour become too expensive, or did pasta go out of vogue in England and France?
Ken Albala posits that by the 16th Century, pasta was one of many dishes (porridges, beans, etc.) that pther Europeans were beginning to consider as foods of the poor rather than of nobility – symbols of poverty, not wealth...12
Dembinka, Maria, Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: rediscovering a cuisine of the past, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible, translated by Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, Cornell University, 1994.
Grant, Mark, Galen on Food and Diet, Routledge, London, 2000.
Grant, Mark, Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, Serif, London, 2000.
Hieatt, Constance, An Ordinance of Pottage: An Edition of the Fifteenth Century Culinary Recipes in Yale University’s MS Beinecke 163, Prospect Books, 1988.
Hieatt, Constance, Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, 2nd Edition, University of Toronto Press, 1976, 1997.
Redon, Odile, et. al., The Medieval Kitchen; Recipes from France and Italy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.
Renfrow, Cindy, Take A Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes, 1991.
Santich, Barbara, The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today, Chicago Review Press, 1995.
Scully, Terence, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, 1995.
Scully, Terence, Early French Cookery, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Tannahill, Reay, Food In History, Stein & Day, 1973.
Sabina Welser’s Cookbook, translated from Das Kochboch der Sabina Welserin, Valoise Armstrong, 1998.
Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham, Savoring the Past, Touchstone, 1983.
Pasta graphic from A Feast for the Eyes, http://www.godecookery.com/tacuin/tacuin.htm
For some wonderful new translations of six Italian sources, please see
Translated 2003 by Lady Helewyse de Birkestad
College of Three Ravens, February 26, 2005
©Chris Adler-France 2005
Katja at Thescorre dot org
1 Food in History, pg. 280.
3“Laganon: a type of small cake, dry, made from the finest wheat flour and fried in a frying pan in olive oil. Lagana is the ancient equivalent of pasta, described by Anthenaus as 'both thin and light'.” Roman Cookery, pg. 65.
4Galen on Food and Diet, pg. 165.
5Food and Drink in Medieval Poland
6Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health, Book VII.
7The Orginal Mediterranean Cuisine, pg. 28.
8The Medieval Kitchen, pg. 13.
9“The standard way of cooking pasta was in stock, or in water with salt, butter, and oil; it was served with grated cheese, and sometimes spices as well… Alternatively, pasta could be cooked with sugar and almond milk, or with goat's milk. Fresh pasta was used to make ravioli and tortelli, which were filled with a thick puree of meat, chicken, or vegetables, often combined with fresh cheese and bound with egg. Like other forms of pasta, these were usually cooked in stock and accompanied by grated cheese.” The Orginal Mediterranean Cuisine, pg. 29.
10 The Original Mediterranean Cuisine, pg. 20.
12Eating Right in the Renaissance, pg. 192.