On the subject of pasta … and Sir Hugh Plat (1552-1611)

First mince pies, now pasta…  food is a great source of inspiration.  This time it’s a review by Bee Wilson I read in the TLS that prompted some thoughts on the subject of pasta.

Bee Wilson’s review of Malcolm Thick’s Sir Hugh Plat: The search for useful knowledge in early modern London
(432pp, Prospect Books 2010) appeared in the TLS of 22 December.  In 1596, Bee writes, Sir Hugh Plat, “alchemist, courtier and all-round inventor,  set out a grand idea to solve the provisioning problems of the Royal Navy: pasta.”

It seemed the ideal food,  which could be used to feed sailors on the long sea voyages that were being undertaken in the later 16th century.  Plat lists the advantages of pasta, as follows:

He laid out the virtues of pasta – or “macaroni”, as he usually called it – in a series of points.
1. First, it is durable, for I have kept the same both sweet and sound, by the space of 3 yeares . . .
2. It is exceedingly light . . .
3. It is speedily dressed, for in one halfe houre, it is sufficiently sodden . . .
4. It is fresh, and thereby very pleasing unto the Mariner in the midst of his salt Meat . . .
5. It is cheape . . .
6. It serveth both in stead of bread and meate, whereby it performs a double service.
7. Not being spent it may be laide up in store for a second voyage.
8. It may be made as delicate as you please, by the addition of oyle, butter, sugar and such like.
9. There is sufficient matter to bee hadde al the yeare long, for the composition thereof.

Plat was a man of many talents who, as well as appreciating his food, definitely had a good nose for business: he advocated the use of pasta primarily because he was “the proud owner of perhaps the first macaroni press to reach London – a kind of extrusion machine, an illustration of which appears in one of his books.”  I’m not convinced he was a great cook, however – the description of the pasta as being “sodden” wouldn’t pass muster in modern culinary terms!

Commercial gain clearly motivated many of Plat’s experiments, and in another enterprising scheme he devised a

secret recipe for rosewater and other waters, priced at £500 (around £60,000 in today’s money). A formula for processing seawater cost £400.

Other areas of experimentation including gardening (an expert on soils, he tested the appropriate uses of various kinds of compost and manure for growing fruits and vegetables – as described in Floraes Paradise, 1608) and confectionery (see below), but Plat’s main source of income seems to have come from the sale of “plague pills”.

In 1593, Plat set up a plague practice, dispensing Plat’s own pills which he claimed were “defensatives”. These consisted of powerful purgatives mixed with honey, quince jam and ginger. Though he gave some away to the poor, there is evidence that selling these pills to city merchants and tradesmen and widows provided Plat with much of his income.

On the subject of confectionery (and in particular preserving and candying fruits), Plat’s book “Delightes of Ladies to adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and distillatories with Beauties, banquets,perfumes and waters. Reade, Practise, and Censure” (1602) is instructive and evocative:

I teach both fruites and flowers to preserve,/ And candie them, so nutmegs cloves and mace:/ To make both marchpane paste, and sugred plate,/ And cast the same in formes of sweetest grace./ Each and foule so moulded from the life, / And after cast in sweet compounds of arte,/ As if the flesh and forme which nature gave/ Did still remaine in every lim and part.

But coming back to the subject of pasta, I was intrigued by this mention of an extruding machine in Elizabethan London.  It prompted me to explore the development of such machines in Italy itself during the sixteenth century.  Pasta machines first appeared in southern Italy, according to Silvano Serventi and Francoise Sabban (Pasta: the Story of a Universal Food, Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 232; also Chapter 3, passim).    Earlier references to pasta (more specifically macaroni) – and there are numerous from the 15th century onwards – still preserve the broad meaning of a dough that was kneaded, then thinly rolled and cut into strips or shapes.   The expression “pasta d’ingegno” (although I’m not convinced by their translation of “ingegno” as “engine”) began to be used from 1570s onwards to “distinguish dry pasta extruded with an extrusion press from pasta made by hand”.

Bartolommeo Scappi, papal chef and author of a compendium published in 1570, recommended that every kitchen should possess “a brake for working all sorts of dough, so that the kitchen in question should have all conveniences.”  The MasterChef appliance of its time!   Once kneaded,  the dough could then be rolled and cut using various implements, including the chitarra (a wire frame through which the dough was pressed to form the typical squared-edge pasta still known as “pasta alla chitarra”).

By 1579 possession of an extrusion press was a requirement for membership of the vermicelli markers’ guild of Naples, as Serventi and Sabban note:

“each shop must absolutely possess its own extrusion press suited to perform the work in question, equipped with a bronze screw and maintained in a state of operation according to the customs of said guild, in order that the work may be executed perfectly for the benefit of the public.” (op.cit., p. 86)

Hugh Plat was certainly well acquainted with these developments, since just twenty years later he submitted his proposal to supply the English navy with pasta.

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