The history of French pasta – History item of the month

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Dessaux, Pierre-Antoine. Vermicelles et coquillettes: histoire d’une industrie alimentaire française. Tours: Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2023.

If you enjoyed last month’s blogpost about the role of shells in early modern history, you may be pleased to know that shells feature in this too, although in the edible form of pasta. Library books about pasta, as you can imagine, tend to focus on the Italian food industry and on Italian customs. That’s why, when I saw Vermicelles et coquillettes: histoire d’une industrie alimentaire française (Noodles and pasta shells: history of a French food industry) in a list of recent publications provided by the book distributor Erasmus France, I immediately found it remarkable.

The truth is that in all European countries where cereals are grown, pasta-based preparations have been documented since the thirteenth century (with the exception of testaroli, at least to my knowledge). As far as France is concerned, pasta recipes are mentioned from the 14th century, while the production and sale of noodles and short pasta is recorded in Paris since the 18th century. This is where this books starts its fascinating journey through the process of industrialisation of pasta and its economic, social and cultural implications.

First limited to Paris and then to cities like Clermont-Ferrand (birthplace of another kind of pâtes, the pâtes d’Auvergne), pasta production benefited from the industrialisation of grain processing and from the import of wheat from Russia, Ukraine, and Algeria. Moreover, it set off the success of large ports, for example that of Marseille, which brought about the creation of a new semolina industry. During the First World War, dried pasta was declared a basic necessity and, from 1939, its sale started being regulated by price control. In the aftermath of WW2, Panzani, a company based in Niort and founded by Jean, the son of Florentine immigrants, took control of the market until the 1960s. The company Rivoire & Carret eventually became Panzani’s main competitor – these companies together represented 70% of the market in 1972 – until they eventually became part of two multinational groups, Lustucru and Danone respectively.

On top of meticulous research, documented by data, and an interdisciplinary approach, the volume also displays some appealing and less appealing recipes from the 18th and 19th century (macaroni à l’italienne, macaroni au lait, noodle soup, macaroni soup à la Virgile) and traces of national brand strategies in Belle Epoque and more recent advertisements by Rivoire & Carret, Ferrand, Renaud, etc. Among the pictures, the author also added frames from pasta television adverts, photographs of pasta factories throughout the centuries and technical drawings of industrial machinery.

You will find this book in the New Book Display until 12 March or else on the loan desk floor at 641.8220944 DES. If you’d like to find more books about pasta, look up the subjects Pasta industry, Pasta products, Food industry and trade.