If only I was certain that the majority of people in this world had an ever-growing stock of lasagne in their refrigerators, I would most DEFINITELY carry a fork around with me! And, I would most definitely gain 10000 pounds along with it.
Oh yes - to be clear, it is “lasagne” and not “lasagna!” Like how I snuck that in there? :) You ask why? Well, if you were to say “lasagna,” you technically would be referring to one single sheet of lasagna, not an entire dish (which is obviously made of multiple sheets of lasagne). But, to spare you the boring details, I will leave it at that. If you are, however, interested in finding out more about this - you can just use our magical friend “Google,” and I’m sure you will have a million answers at your service immediately. Ahhhh…the joys of Google. Gosh, sometimes I miss just using the good old-fashioned encyclopedia!
Anyways. Andiamo avanti…
As we obviously know today, the most worldly recognized version of lasagna is, without a doubt, the deliciously delectable meat lasagna. Ohhh, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Though notable in its entirety, this dish did not just come about its awesomeness from nothing. And so, with this, I would like to take you back in time and share with you the lovely lasagne lullaby.
It begins with…
La la la “laganon” “laganum”…
Haha. With all seriousness now. The origin of this dish dates all the way back to ancient Rome. During this era, the Greek term “laganon” and the Latin term “laganum” were used to describe square or rectangular sheets of pasta. These sheets were made from a dough of wheat flour. They were then cooked in the oven or directly on the fire. Although similar in shape, these sheets of pasta were nothing of what we consider lasagna today. Instead, they resembled a very soft, thin piece of bread. Unfortunately, not much more detail has been documented.
We start to discover more documentation moving towards the Middle Ages. During the Angevin rule, the first recipe of “lasagna” was recorded in Italy’s oldest cookbook titled “Liber de Coquina.” This book was written at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries. The dish was described as a mixture of water and flour that was then cut into large strips and boiled in either water or broth. It was then dried and served with cheese and various spices. It has been said that this was probably the most common way to eat lasagne during that time.
However, a much richer version was often made for those who were…well…richer. :) Aka, the court. This version of lasagne, more similar to that of today, was baked “al forno.” It was stuffed with an array of fatty foods: fried egg, boiled or scrambled egg, ravioli either in small pieces or whole, fatty cheese that was either grated or cut, lard, as required, and - as if something else was missing - sausages. This richer than rich version was generally served during court banquets. You know - the bigger the belly, the more wealth there was to show off!
One thing to note is that during the 14th century, the lasagne sheets were made of only water and soft wheat flour. Therefore, once the pasta was boiled or cooked, it had a very soft consistency, much like that of the Japanese udon noodle.
With the transition into the Renaissance era and the arrival of egg pasta in northern Italy, particularly in Bologna (located in the region of Emilia Romagna), came the addition of egg in the recipe of lasagne. The egg replaced either a part or all of the water in the dough. This, obviously, depended on the preference of the cook. The egg gave the dough a more firm consistency, and, in my personal opinion, better flavor!
Now, were getting to the good stuff!
Generally speaking, the Renaissance's recipe was based on only butter and cheese. However, there was a very different and quite interesting recipe that was documented by Bartolomeo Scappi, one of the most famous Renaissance’s chef, in 1570. It was called “Pasta Reale.” The pasta dough was made with flour, rose water, butter and sugar. The pasta sheets were then layered with butter, provatura (a cheese similar to mozzarella), parmigiano, sugar, pepper, and cinnamon. Before serving, it was sprinkled with sugar and more cinnamon. As you can see, it was very representative of the tastes of the era- sweet and spicy. Not so sure I would like it, but hey, maybe one day I will make it and see!
It was not until the second half of the 18th century that more variation came into the mix. Here is when we start to see the introduction of meats, especially prosciutto. Many recipes even called for a “meat sauce.” This sauce was made from the liquid that was obtained from browning and stewing meat and vegetables. It was then reduced into a thick and tasty sauce. It seems to me as if it was almost more of a gravy than a meat sauce we think of today.
Antonio Nebbia, Italian cook and author of “Cuoco Maceratese” of 1781, describes a version of lasagne called “I Princisgras,” the ancestor of today’s Vincisgrassi found in the region of Marche. Princisgras was made with egg pasta that was interlayered with a sauce very similar to that of besciamella - the butter was substituted with cream, and prosciutto and truffle were added. Each layer was then topped off with scales of butter and some grated parmigiano cheese. MMM sounds delicious!
Let’s side track a bit...
There has been a loooonnnggg lasting dispute about the birthplace of the dish - with Bologna (Emilia) and Napoli being its main contenders. However, it is only fair to say that the “origin” is really due to both. Without the gastronomic influence of one or the other, lasagne as we know of today might have been something very different. Nevertheless, we can say that if analyzing the origin based on written records, Napoli might win this fight.
Though not the first recipe, the first reference of lasagna was stated in the chronicles of “Frair Salimbene da Parma” in 1284. For those who are not aware, Parma is located in the region of Emilia-Romagna. The reference describes a frair who expresses, “non vidi mai nessuno che come lui si abbuffasse tanto volentieri di lasagne con formaggio.” This translates to, “I never saw anyone like him being so fond of lasagna with cheese.” This quote clearly proves that even frairs frequently indulged in a nice meal of lasagne.
Shortly after, as stated before, the first recipe was recorded in the “Liber da Coquina” in Napoli. Jumping quickly to 1634 - still in Napoli - Giovanni Battista Crisci published in his “La Lucerna de Corteggiani” a recipe of “lasagne di monache stufate, mozzarella e cacio.” This is the first time we see the lasagne stuffed with cheese and then baked.
The first recipe that uses egg pasta was, however, found in “Libro di Cucina.” This is a cookbook that dates back to the 14th century, only to be published in 1863 in Bologna by Francesco Zambrini. The recipe depicts a dish of layering egg lasagne sheets and cheese.
Hmmmm - sounds a bit familiar, no?
Slowly, but surely, over time, it becomes evident that the first recipes of the Roman times were evolving with new Emilian and Neapolitan influences, only to create a new, more “modern” recipe.
During the 1600s, the traditional recipes of lasagne in Bologna included the use of béchamel and minced meat. Whereas, those of Neapolitan included ricotta, ragú, meatballs, and mozzarella cheese.
About a century later, with the arrival of the tomato in Naples, the recipe evolved into something very similar to what we know of today. In 1881, the first recipe that included tomato was recorded in “Il Principe dei cuochi o la vera cucina napolitana” by Francesco Palma.
In the second half of the 1800’s, this more modernized version of lasagne began to spread throughout Italy. Many regions created new traditions and eventually became nationally recognized for them.
The first lasagne to be regionally identified was that of “alla milanese.” The most authentic historic recipe was documented in Francesco Leonardi’s “Il Cuciniere Perfetto Italiano.” Today, it is quite difficult to find other recipes of the true “lasagne alla milanese.” The original recipe was made with truffles, butter, besciamella, cinnamon, and parmigiano. Toward the late 1800’s, the recipe changed to include chicken fillets, mushrooms and meat sauce.
Very soon after, the region of Napoli became quite notorious for their lasagne that was traditionally prepared during the Carnival festivities. In 1837, Ippolito Cavalcanti (Duke of Buonvicino), in his “Trattato di cucina teorico pratico” described this lasagne as sheets of pasta layered with a tasty meat sauce - or “brodo de no bello stufato” - small meatballs, slices of mozzarella or provola, grated cheese and a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. This lasagne “di Carnevale” was very much appreciated among its people, especially by Francesco II di Borbone, the last king of the Due Sicilie. He enjoyed it so much so that his father, Ferdinando di Borbone, gave his son the nickname of “Re Lasagna,” or King Lasagna.
A few years later, the regional recipes of “alla genovese and “alla bolognese” were documented in “Il Cuciniere Italiano Moderno” in 1844. In this book, recipes for both a light and more fatty version of the two types of lasagne were given to satisfy the needs of those who followed the liturgical calendar. This way, there was an option available for the days in which one cannot eat meat.
The “fatty” recipe of lasagne “alla genovese” called for egg pasta interlayered with a sauce made of meat and parmigiano cheese. This way of making the lasagne survived over time in Napoli and has evolved into the traditional and regional dish of “ziti alla genovese.” The leaner version of the recipe called for pasta sheets layered with a sauce of basil, garlic and pecorino cheese - or better known as pesto alla genovese.
The “fatty” variety of lasagne “alla bolognese” called for chopped boiled spinach that was then sautéed with a meat sauce and then layered with sheets of egg pasta. The light recipe, instead, included only the boiled chopped spinach sautéed with butter, onions and herbs that was then layered with the pasta sheets.
Sounds like a good vegetarian option to me :) Well, depending on what type of vegetarian you are!
The influence of spinach in the "alla bolognese” sauce carried on until the beginning of the 20th century. It was then integrated into the pasta itself, giving the dish its celebrated green color. Along with the modernization of the pasta sheets, the filling consisted of your classic ragú (meat sauce), besciamella, and grated parmigiano cheese.
The success and hype of lasagna alla bolognese in Italy was due to the famous writer Paolo Monelli’s description of the dish in his book titled “Ghiottone errante” of 1935.
As with any traditional Italian recipe, there are many, many, many and I mean MANY renditions of lasagne alla bolognese. Nonetheless, in 2003, after much careful analysis, the Accademia Italiana della Cucina released to the Bologna Chamber of Commerce what is considered to be the original and most traditional recipe. So if you are looking to make the most authentic lasagna alla bolognese, visit here to find the recipe. Unfortunately, it is in Italian!
Just because the history of lasagne as we know it concentrates on the evolution of recipes found in Bologna and Napoli, it is not to say that other variations of lasagne were never at bay. Take for example: lasagne of Veneto made with red radicchio of Treviso and taleggio cheese, Sicilia’s lasagne alla norma made with eggplant and ricotta, or Sardegna’s lasagne di carasau made of their famous carasau bread and pecorino sardo. Italy is a country of immense gastronomic history. And, for this, it is so rich in its culture. As said time and time again, the recipes and food traditions of this country are infinite. New and old recipes will continuously be discovered and cherished by its people. With this, it is only obvious that the lullaby of lasagne does not end here.