You know Italy is renowned for their fine ingredients and excellent dishes; but what do you really know about Italian food history? The history of Italy's legendary cuisine goes all the way back to Roman days, but it's really based on the divisions and many different regions of this diverse country. Many people think of pizza, pasta, tomatoes, and olive oil when they think of Italian cuisine, but there's a whole lot more to it than that.
The History and Development of Italian Food
Early Roman Influence
Much of modern Italy's fantastic food dates back to traditions begun in Roman times. The Romans were legendary for their feasts, their wines, and their food variety. They imported spices from China, and other exotic foods from as far as their ships could travel. When the Roman civilization fell, much of its cuisine died away too, and a real Italian cuisine would not develop again until medieval times.
Local Availability Leads to Regional Cuisines
Italy in medieval times was nothing if not divided, and ultimately, those many divisions helped Italian cuisine develop into the myriad of styles, textures, and flavors it contains today. Medieval Italy was divided into many separate city/states that were ruled by separate powers rather than a central government. Different regions developed in their own way, and with their own customs. Many of these customs revolved around local food that was available. In addition, mountain ranges divide the country, creating more diverse regions that were difficult to cross. This all led up to many different regional cuisines developing in one country.
Flourishing Trade Makes More Ingredients Available
As the many districts of Italy grew and prospered, trade in Northern Italy flourished, and with it came a myriad of foodstuffs, including spices and other foods of the wealthy, such as rich cream, butter, eggs, and grains. (All the ingredients for fine pasta!) Pasta initially was a food for the wealthy because it contained so many costly items, and it originated in Northern Italy during the late medieval to early Renaissance. Also, for a time during history, Northern Italy was occupied by Austria or France, which added diversity to their cuisine. Gradually, pasta spread throughout Italy and beyond, but some of the most impressive pasta recipes began in Northern Italy, such as Lasagna Bolognese and other creations from the town of Bologna.
The Renaissance and Tuscan Influence
During the Renaissance the arts flowered, and so did Italian food. The center of this artistic movement was Florence, which lies in the Tuscany region that has become so popular today. In fact, the wealthy were extravagant, and one way they showed their wealth was to create ornate dishes and set their tables with fantastically rich and stunning stemware and serving ware. The de Medici family was one of the wealthiest in Florence, and in fact, one of the most influential families in all of Europe. When Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France, she brought her love of fine cuisine with her, and helped establish the long tradition of French cuisine.
Southern Italian Food
Northern Italy enjoyed a robust economy and access to numerous trade routes, but Southern Italy did not. The area was rife with poverty, and this is where some of the most traditional Italian dishes originated. The people created masterpieces out of what ingredients they had available. It was here that pizza developed, in fact, pizza sellers on the streets were common in Southern towns, just like hot dog vendors are common in our big cities today. The dry pasta, spaghetti developed here, too. Dry pasta stores and travels easily, and it became a staple ingredient of dishes in the South, and later around Europe as Italians carried their homemade pasta with them as they traveled or immigrated.
Pasta Machines Lead to World-Wide Export
The first pasta machine to process dry pasta originated in Naples in the 1700s, although dry pasta had been enjoyed in the area for centuries before that. Dry pasta spread from Naples and Sicily to all around the world, with Italian recipes spreading to all the corners of the globe. The pasta machine made it easier to produce larger amounts of dry pasta, too. This made it easier to buy, sell, and trade pasta with other cities and countries, and that helped it become a historic Italian export. Sicily also has distinct influences from Arab cuisine because of the many Muslims that have historically lived in the area.
Fresh Ingredients Are Always Key
Italy's food history and heritage has always included the use of fresh local ingredients, and each region continues to produce their own delicacies today. For example, the Parma region produces the finest prosciutto (ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano, possibly the finest parmesan cheese in the world, while Bologna manufactures fantastic salami and mortadella. The Veneto region produces asiago cheese, and South of Rome you'll find real fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes galore. As each area developed their own special ingredients, they mastered using them in their cooking. Italy is a land of many regions, and they have all added their indelible mark to Italian cuisine.