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Lasagne: A journey among flavors through centuries and peoples

I open the oven door and a wave of aromas pervades me. Cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg. I must close my eyes to savour first through my brain. My sensors got alerted, they have been seduced, they have lost all resistance. I open my eyes and look at the slightly browned parmesan cheese still sizzling on the bechamel which combined with ragout. Fascinated, I stop before what is theoretically a simple baking pan filled with thin pasta layers alternated with layers of Bolognese meat ragout, bechamel, and parmesan cheese. For me it is rather a history and adventures book, a novel telling of centuries and peoples, courts and poets, traditions and places. My thoughts go to Horace, the Roman poet of the first century AD who wrote about the “lagana”, a thin layer of pasta dough that was fried and baked, very different from what stands in front of my eyes but still its ancestor.

Gently, I take the pan out of the oven so that I don’t spoil the architecture of condiments and every layer keep its individuality and does not turn into a pie like the one described by Apicius, the 1st century AD wealthy Roman merchant author of °De Re Coquinaria. He described “lagana”, Cicero’s favorite dish, whose name derived from the Greek “laganon”, a dough made with water and durum wheat flour, which was rolled and then cut in stripes. These were then dressed with a meat filling and cooked directly on the stove or baked, turning out to be closer to a pasta and meat pie than to “lasagne” as we know them today.

While my thoughts have gone to ancient Romans, the ingredients in the pan have quieted down and I am staring wishing to get a serving but the beauty and the precious scent they give off have captivated me and I keep staring lost in my thoughts. I remember Isidore of Seville, Saint and theologist, author of Etymologiae. In the 6th-7th century AD, he wrote of the “laganum”, a thin pasta dough stripe cooked in water and then fried, I imagine this other lasagne ancestor that was prepared in Andalucia, where in those times lived teeming-maned and Visigoths of backward customs.

I must wait a half hour before sinking the pallet in the lasagne to get a serving; this is a full-bodied dish, made up of at least four or five pasta layers, a careful construction that would miserably fall apart if it were cut while still hot. That half hour gives me time to keep retracing its history and the poets celebrating lasagne in the Middle Ages. In Umbria (central Italy), Jacopone da Todi wrote: “He who looks at the overall picture is oftentimes mistaken ‘cause, for its virtue, a pepper grain will often beat lasagna”; in Tuscany, Cecco Angiolieri, author of the famous If I were fire I would burn the world, sentenced that: “He who makes lasagne with another person’s flour will have a castle with no walls and no moat”. More amusing the monk Fra’ Salimbene da Parma, child of the bourgeois Adam family, a true buff of the pleasures and beauties of life but also a tough judge of men and religious institutes, wrote a chronicle where he mentioned a portly monk: “I never saw anyone who binged so much on lasagne with cheese”. It was 1284 and this testimonial is enough for me to rebuke the British claims, based on the existence of a cookbook mentioning “loseyns”, that lasagne were created by a group of chefs for King Richard the second. Also because, apart from the Roman times, in the famous 1238-39 cookbook Anonimo Meridionale, (Nameless Southerner), we find the recipe “Affare lasagne” and in the Liber de Coquina, a Neapolitan Angevin court cookbook dating back to 1308-1314 we read the “de lasanis”: “To make a lasagne pie, take fried or boiled or loose eggs and cut or whole ravioli, grated cheese or cheese in pieces, enough lard and put everything together in a layer, add spices, and on this put pasta shaped like a snake fighting a dove or any other animal you like; then well-filled intestines like a wall all around it, then add color to layers as you wish and bake in the oven. Finally serve with great pomp”.

The snake and the dove tickle my imagination. Lasagne are a sensuous dish for its succession of layers, flavours, and contrasting scents, sweet and salty. I remember great loves, which in Italian are anagrams (amori, loves, and aromi, aromas), and deep emotions, but those are other stories. The lasagne keep giving off their scent. I want to get ready to taste them. I look for the right wine to pair. The presence of bechamel with a pinch of nutmeg gives a sweet trend that combines with the salty and savory ragout. I opt for a red wine not too heavy and structured, soft and fruity. I discard Lambrusco and choose a Pinot noir which I uncork with anticipation. I pour a glassful in religious silence aware that the time to taste lasagne is getting closer. I remember to have read that only during the Renaissance eggs were added to the dough to give it tenacity. As a native of what was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, I prefer the Neapolitan pasta dough, made of water, salt, and durum wheat flour.

Such a unique time, the Renaissance, also in the kitchen. The time of Bartolomeo Scappi, secret, that is private, cook for Pope Pius the 4th. In his 1570 six-volume work, Scappi displayed a baked lasagne recipe based on a “royal dough” made with flour, rose water, butter, and sugar, dressed with layers of butter, “provatura” (a cheese similar to mozzarella), parmesan cheese, sugar, pepper, cinnamon and, before being served, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon celebrating those times’ appreciation for sweet and spicy taste and, for me, a memory of the Arab influence in my homeland cuisine. Cristoforo Messibugo, Renaissance cook at the Estense court in the 16th century, author of Banchetti, composizioni di vivande e apparecchio in generale (Banquets, dish composition, and general table setting) wrote that pasta layers had to be as thin as a paper sheet as if two people pulled a rolled dough in opposite directions. I imagine a kitchen with a floor white of flour and the dough elongating under the amused eyes of a multi-plated collared lady.

I sip the wine in a sort of ritual to get ready for the taste of lasagne and their ragout. Although Bolognese, this ragout is red of the Naples tomatoes. I smile just at the thought of the dispute between Naples and Bologna about the paternity of this dish. In 1634, in Naples, Giovanni Battista Crisci published La lanterna de’ Corteggiani (The Courtiers’ Lantern) where for the first time we find an overview of Southern gastronomic products as well as, among other, the recipe for “nuns’ stewed lasagne, mozzarella cheese and cheese”, which translated in English loses the possibility of reading the Italian double meaning. Stewed, in Italian is “stufate” which also means bored, so from the construction of the sentence it can mean stewed lasagne or bored nuns. Being Italian I laugh at the double possibility. These baked lasagne were made with cheese spun and the recipe lasted, with few variations, until the 18th century when timbales took over.

I admit the thought of timbales is seductive and induces me into temptation. For me, timbales are like a surprise package where the dough encloses a filling one can appreciate only when cutting into the crust. Lasagne, instead, are like an apparently open book, in reality a treasure box of flavours disseminated among the pasta sheets like love phrases written on light-colored pages. Lasagne, claimed by both Bologna and Naples as to their paternity, just like a genius child everybody wished to have one’s own. Hometown to King Ferdinand the second of Borbone, nicknamed King Lasagna, Naples contributed the use of tomatoes which was unknown in Emilia, the Bologna region. The first tomatoes lasagne recipe dates back to 1881 and can be found in Principe dei cuochi o la vera cucina napolitana (The prince of cooks or the real Neapolitan cuisine) by Francesco Palma. Fifty years earlier, Ippolito Cavalcanti had already described the Neapolitan lasagne: layers of thin pasta sheets alternated to small meatballs, mozzarella or provola cheese and flavored with grated cheese, sugar, and cinnamon. On the other hand, the Emilian Pellegrino Artusi, author of Scienza in Cucina (Science in the Kitchen), one of the Bibles of cookbooks, completely ignored the lasagne recipe.

I go back to my lasagne pan, I sink the pallet with firm delicacy and I cut out my rectangle of paradise for the palate. I sit down at the table and with a fork a take a bite. I bring it to my mouth while I feel the oozing flavors. My taste buds are in the ninth sky while I taste each nuance. After all it is not important to me whether lasagne are originally from Naples or Bologna, because each Italian region boasts its authentic version. From the Venetian with radicchio to the Sicilian with ricotta cheese and fried eggplants. At the end of the 18th century, Francesco Leonardi had already written about Milan style lasagne with truffles, butter, bechamel and parmesan cheese. In 1844, the Cuciniere Italiano Moderno had published a recipe of Genoa style lasagne with basil pesto which had been in use since the 12th century when sailors took them on long trips because they did not spoil and were easily kept for several days; in the same book, we find the recipe for Bolognese lasagne made with an egg and spinach pasta dough, the same type of dough that the Italian Cuisine Academy has registered, as the base for Bolognese lasagne, at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 2003.

Created as a symbol of opulence for special occasions like Carnival or Easter, lasagne are a perfect testing ground for sometimes unexpected pairings. I have read of Asian pork and ginger lasagne, tortillas-based Mexican lasagne, plantain-based Nigerian lasagne.

This dish in the pan, is a journey among flavors, through centuries and peoples, sumptuous testimony of the banquet civilization. In the pan, I have other servings, I smile feeling like a Genoese sailor. I know I can eat leftover lasagne tomorrow, they are a special dish that tastes like home and times when there was no hurry. The kitchen is still impregnated with their flavor. I close my eyes and dream.

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1 Comment

Mary Knight
Mary Knight
Dec 12, 2022

Donatella, this article on lasagne is so beautifully written and describes in exceptional detail, the nuances of the dish, its history, and variations. I particularly enjoyed the emotions and feelings you invoked while anticipating and then tasting the finished product. You are a true artist, in the culinary sense, and in the written word. Complimenti!

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