Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Did Aeneas Invent Pizza?

When most people think of Italy, they also think of pizza.

The residents of Naples claim to have invented it and they boast that theirs is the best in the world. Although you can put everything from pepperoni to pineapple on a pizza these days, purists maintain that there are only two types of pizza, the two original ones: Marinara and Margherita.

Neapolitan fishermen with Mount Vesuvius at dawn
The first and most basic kind of pizza is simply a thin circle of hand-kneaded dough covered with garlic-infused tomato sauce, garnished with a little oregano and put in a very hot oven for about a minute. Legend has it that Neapolitan fisherman ate this for breakfast. Thats why its called Marinara which means fisherman (or boatman) in Italian. 

The second type of pizza for purists is the so-called Margherita. Buffalo mozzarella is added to the simplest version to create a pizza the same three colours as the Italian flag: red tomato sauce, green basil and white cheese. Guide books will tell you this tricolore (three-coloured) version was created in honour of Queen Margherita’s visit to Naples in the late 1800s, but that story may be apocryphal.

The Petrella mozzarella factory in Aversa near Naples
One of the centres of production of buffalo mozzarella is the town of Aversa near Naples. In 2015, my husband and I were visiting friends and took a tour of the spotless Petrella factory to see how this creamy white cheese is made. Their fresh mozzarella was like ambrosia. That’s another reason Naples claims to have the best pizza: they have the best mozzarella. 

Once, while reading Virgil’s Aeneid, I came across a passage that made me wonder if the concept of the pizza might not go back much further than the 19th century. According to the Latin poet Virgil, after the Greeks sacked Troy and ended the Trojan War the hero Aeneas sailed off to look for a new home. When he and his fellow refugees finally arrived in Italy at the place they were meant to settle, they found they were almost out of food. They only had some stale round loaves of bread to eat. In order to stretch this fare, they collected some fruits of the field’, perhaps berries and herbs, put them on top and devoured the result. 

Tweaked fresco of Aeneas from Pompeii
Because the bread was so stale Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, joked, ‘Hey! We’re actually eating our tables! 
(Aeneid VII.116)

At that moment, Aeneas remembered a prophecy given earlier in their adventures: When you arrive at a place so tired and hungry that you eat your tables, you will know you have reached your promised land. (Aeneid VII. 124-127)

The berries certainly werent tomatoes, which come from the New World, and the herbs probably didnt include oregano, garlic or basil, but this passage from a two-thousand year old epic is a lovely link between modern Italian cuisine and its ancient legends.

Caroline Lawrence has written over thirty books for kids set in Ancient Roman times. Two of these, The Night Raid and Queen of the Silver Arrow, are re-tellings of stories from Virgil’s Aeneid.  

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