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Old Non-Pasta

March 05, 1997|CHARLES PERRY CHARLES PERRY

Some people like to think the ancient Romans made pasta. The Museo degli Spaghetti in Campodassio, Liguria, promotes the idea that macaroni was already known 2,500 years ago, when Rome was under Etruscan rule. The evidence is a rolling pin and a thick wire, supposedly for rolling the macaroni around, which were found in an Etruscan kitchen.

A rolling pin and a knitting needle. Hmm, not quite smoking gun-class evidence, particularly when Renaissance Italian cookbooks make it clear that macaroni was originally a flat noodle and that the hollow kind developed later.

Sometimes people mention tracta as a candidate for Roman noodlehood. This Latin word basically meant a sheet of rolled-out dough (it was called for in the making of a sort of cheese pie), but "De Re Coquinaria," the cookbook ascribed to the 2nd century gourmet Apicius, has a dozen recipes for which tracta is crumbled into boiling liquid.

Unfortunately, none of these recipes says to cook the tracta until done. On the contrary, the tracta was added as a thickener. You were supposed to "bind" the sauce with it (obligas--the same word used when a sauce is thickened with cornstarch or eggs) and the resulting texture was described as "smooth" (levis).

Try binding a sauce with crumbled dry noodles some time and see what you get. For crumbling into sauce, tracta was probably not raw dough but a sort of round cracker--a rather chewy, long-keeping cracker like ship's biscuit.

But cheer up. Though tracta wasn't pasta, it might have been the origin of the medieval practice of thickening sauces with bread crumbs.

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