Lasagna Through the Ages

June 21, 2013

In Strange Food History, we're hitting the books -- to find you the strangest, quirkiest slices of our food heritage.

Today: Lasagna -- you've come a long way. 


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Lasagna, the ubiquitous comfort food, evolved significantly from its first iteration until it became the familiar dish that we enjoy today.

And we're lucky too - earlier versions sound wholly unappetizing at best, completely inedible at worst. (Sow's belly mixed with fish, anyone?)

Lasagna's presence in ancient Rome (then referred to as lagnum or lagane, from the Greek laganon) is significant because it's the only dish similar to pasta that the Romans cooked, providing supporting evidence for those who theorize that pasta originated in Italy. But the "pasta" in the first written recipe for lasagna, from the late 4th century/early 5th century cookbook "Apicius, Cookery and Dining in Ancient Rome," is more similar to very thin pancakes: 

Patina Apiciana
"The Apician dish is made thus: take small pieces of cooked sow's belly [with the paps on it] pieces of fish, pieces of chicken, the breasts of figpeckers or of thrushes [slightly] cooked, [and] whichever is best. Mince all this very carefully, particularly  the figpeckers [the meat of which is very tender]. Dissolve in oil strictly fresh eggs; crush pepper and lovage, pour over some broth and raisin wine, put it in a saucepan to heat and bind with roux. After you have cut all in regular pieces, let it come to the boiling point. When done, retire [from the fire] with its juice of which you put some in another deep pan with whole pepper and pignolia nuts. Spead [the ragout] out in single layers with thin pancakes in between; put in as many pancakes and layers of meat as is required to fill the dish; put a final cover of pancake on top and sprinkle with pepper after those eggs have been added [which serve] to tie the dish. Now put this [mould or dish] in a boiler [steamer, hot water bath, allow to congeal] and dish it out [by unmoulding it]. An expensive silver platter would enhance the appearance of this dish materially."

The next version recorded is from the 14th century Liber de Coquina. Here, pasta dough is rolled out, sliced into small squares, boiled, then served topped with the grated cheese and spices (namely cardamon, nutmeg, ground pepper, and cinnamon). A variation of that recipe calls on the cook to top the pasta with cheese and spices, layer with another row of pasta, then more cheese and spices, and so on and so forth. Sound familiar? 

Even one step closer to the version we know and love is the torta de lassanis, in which the small squares of pasta are layered with cooked eggs, ravioli, cheese, and bacon, surrounded by a stuffed intestine (relax, that's just a sausage), and baked in the oven. 

As for us? We're more than happy with Merrill's version

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  • Greenstuff
  • ryanm
  • Gabriella Paiella
    Gabriella Paiella
  • pierino
  • vanessa.b
Yes, my name rhymes.


Greenstuff June 21, 2013
My understanding has been that there are no figpeckers (garden warblers) or other small birds in Italy, as the Italians have eaten every one!
ryanm June 21, 2013
Not sure this sounds "wholly unappetizing at best," considering that pork (aka sow) belly is pretty delicious and is not at all an unusual ingredient to mix with fish. Pepper, eggs, pine nuts, and lovage are also perfectly fine ingredients. Raisin wine I'm not familiar with, though might be similar to port (yum). Definitely not lasagna alla bolognese--though neither is most lasagna we come across today--but I for one would be interested in trying the dish.
Gabriella P. June 21, 2013
A friend of mine made the dish for a food history a few years ago and I sampled it - I can attest the aroma/texture was horrible! (I still have nightmares about what the filling looked like.) But the version from Liber de Coquina wasn't half bad. Definitely a fun project to try out.
pierino June 22, 2013
The best lasagne I've ever dined on in my life have been in Emilia-Romagna. Pasta rolled out to the maximum thinness. The sauce (sauce bolognese) was layered with discretion. So unlike the huge amounts of glop that Americans associate with Italian (i.e. Italian-American) pastas.
vanessa.b June 24, 2013
"Horrible" and "unappetizing" are understatements. I would barely call it food.