Sunday, April 29, 2012

Under The Spaghetti Tree: Part I

As a child I used to believe that spaghetti grew on trees and that Marco Polo brought it to Italy from China. As we drove through the Italian countryside during our summer holidays, I remember the excitement in the backseat as my brother, sister and I searched for the first sighting of the supposedly ubiquitous spaghetti tree. My father, something of a practical joker, had something I’m sure to do with perpetuating the myth. I had visions of playing beneath a chandelier of spaghetti as my mother picked the choicest strands and threw them directly into a pot of boiling water. For obvious reasons, the proverbial tree proved illusive - we had to settle for olive groves - but it was great fun nonetheless!

The fact is, no one can say for certain where spaghetti originated or how long a history it has (maybe it does grow on trees!). Children today are more food savvy. My eldest son Massimo, who’s 8 now, knew almost immediately that I was pulling his leg when I resurrected the myth on a drive down to Naples last summer. He said: “Daddy you’re joking, right? Spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, it comes from Barilla”. From the corner of my eye I did, however, catch my younger son Giuliano, sneaking an exploratory peek out the window.

Of course, the popular myth that Marco Polo brought it home from his travels was debunked many years ago (at about the same time someone also discounted the notion that it grows on trees). Since then, theories have abounded but the fact is that no one knows how long the history of spaghetti spans. Its origins are intertwined with the history of pasta which is lost in time. Part of the problem is one of terminology. The word ‘spaghetti’, if not the product, is of relatively recent origin. It was only in the early 1800s that it came into popular usage. The word most used in the Middle Ages, in generic fashion for all forms of pasta, was maccheroni – spelt in as many different ways probably as it was cooked. The earliest record found thus far of the word spaghetti is in a dictionary of Italian dialect, coincidentally here in my home province of Piacenza, which was published in 1836. It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1846, that the word spaghetti was first recorded in a mainstream dictionary, where it was equated with vermicelli. Even today, in parts of Italy, particularly in the south, the words vermicelli and spaghetti are used to describe the same thing.

Myths, origins and etymological considerations aside, spaghetti as a staple of the masses didn’t become popular until the latter part of the 19th century. Its rise coincided with the introduction of the extrusion press and subsequent technological developments which simplified the laborious process of producing the long thin strands. Today some estimates suggest that spaghetti accounts for something in the region of two-thirds of the world’s consumption of pasta. Dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti with tomto sauce), spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli peppers) have gained world renown and come to symbolise a nation, a people and its food.
As for myself, I’m going to go out and pick some spaghetti for lunch – I’ll take a look under the tree in the garden and if that fails, I suppose I’ll go to the shops.

Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli pepper
Spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino

Serves 4
Preparation time:  5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

320g spaghetti
2 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
1 fresh chilli or 1 tsp dried chilli flakes (again, more or less to taste)
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful chopped fresh parsley

Place the oil in a deep-sided frying pan. Heat gently and add the garlic finely sliced and the chopped chilli. Allow it to warm through and infuse very gently until the pasta is cooked. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the spaghetti. Cook until just al dente. Drain the pasta and throw it into the frying pan. Turn up the heat for just a few seconds while you thoroughly toss the pasta. Sprinkle over freshly chopped parsley and serve immediately.


  1. Is sending a child spaghetti tree hunting in Italy like sending a child snipe hunting here in the States? : )

    And just a quick language question: When you write 'spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino', why don't you add the con? I would have said 'spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperocino.' Am I doing it wrong?

    1. Snipe hunting's a wild goose chase Paula. I'd like to think there is a spaghetti tree out there somewhere! :)
      As for the recipe name, here in Italy it's such an iconic dish that we omit the 'con'. However, written in English, it does often come with the 'with'. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with the way you are saying it Paula!

  2. That's cute Mario - the spaghetti tree.I love this recipe too, so simple, yet so tasty.

    1. Next time you are in the garden centre Cathy, make sure to ask for one - they need a sunny disposition and start bearing fruit after a couple of years.

  3. Next time you pass the Barilla factory off the A1 in Parma, tell Massimo why the factory is so long. They can only extract one extremely long spago at a time. When it dries, they chop it up and pack it into the box you buy in the store.

    PS Dad, good story.

  4. That's a great one... I absolutely love it. I will remember that one next time I pass by it!!!

  5. By far always my favorite! Your photo is delicious and inticing of this pasta classic!

  6. I love pasta. Great recipe and photos.

  7. Thanks Christine and Pegasus, so pleased you liked the post!

  8. Love this story! I'm pretty sure the spaghetti tree grows in the same soil as the money tree and in that case they are both in my Grandmother 's back garden!