History of Gragnano pasta, the macaroni capital

by Federico Quagliuolo

Gragnano pasta is the delight of kings. Literally.
Ferdinand II in fact, he nicknamed it "city of macaroni“, With a decree of July 12, 1845 which he gave exclusive to the city for the supply of pasta to the Royal Court. It was the moment that made one official millennial tradition of refined products that we have cooked for centuries, without forgetting also the neighbor Torre Annunziata.

There Vesuvian pasta-making tradition it is not recent: already the ancients Romans they cultivated olive trees and largeor by the parties Lattari Mountains, behind the ancient Stabiae, because they believed that the climatic conditions of the area were perfect for growing the best grain. They had seen us very well. Indeed, the quality of the air, the properties of the water of the Lattari Mountains and the excellent sun exposure also allowed a perfect process for the natural drying of pasta.

Lavorazione pasta
Manual processing of pasta, photograph by Pastificio Afeltra
Storia della pasta di Gragnano, la capitale dei maccheroni

Pasta from Gragnano? No, Greek makaronia!

Already from the Roman origin of the name of Gragnano one could guess the future of the tied town to the yellow gold of the fields: according to one of the most accredited theories, it would derive from the distortion of the name of the gens Grania (from Latin granum= wheat), who owned the land. On the other hand, many municipalities have their names derived from local Roman families: read the story of Pomigliano D'Arco! The presence of the Vernotico torrent, which fed i city mills, was the engine for the first activities of bread production already in the 1st century BC, since Gragnano supplied flour to its neighbors Stabiae, Pompeii and Herculaneum. And the first urban settlement paradoxically it was born from the refugees who were saved after the famous one eruption of Vesuvius in 79.

In the ancient territories of the Magna Grecia, moreover, the pasta it was already widely known before the birth of Christ. The Greek term was "makaria" or "makaronia“, Or“ blessed food ”, a form of crushed bread that was offered after the funeral. Hence the term "macaroni", which also winks at Italian "dent“, The typical movement during the production of pasta.
This name remained for generically identify all types of pasta that, with exceptions such as i vermicelli, it never had proper names until the 1900s.

Storia della pasta di Gragnano, la capitale dei maccheroni
Spaghetti left to dry as in the past. Photograph from the collection of "Gragnano Pasta Factory"

Poverty sharpens ingenuity

The millers were gods great innovators, probably driven by the conditions of extreme poverty in which the Viceroyalty of Naples lived in the 1500s. There pasta depopulated in Naples and in the province not only for the ancient Greek (later Arab) traditions of the food, but also because it was easy to produce, economical and capable of being stored for a very long time. The quality of the durum wheat from Gragnano it also created products capable of cooking well, resistant to mold and very tasty.

In fact, during the sixteenth century the tools were made which, still today in an automated way, are used in the production of Gragnano pasta.

pasta di Gragnano bambini
Children bringing Gragnano pasta - Photo by Pastificio Garofalo

Industries arrive

And here we are in the 19th century, with Ferdinand II king of Naples, the Pizza already become "national food" and the Neapolitans maliciously nicknamed "mangiamaccaroni". It was the 1845 and Ferdinando went to visit the small town of Gragnano, which he boasted 5000 souls it's a bustling industrial plant made of mills, bakeries and artisan pasta factories, a bit like what happened a few kilometers further on, even in Torre Annunziata and, similarly, a Minors. The city was also famous for silk production, but a death of worms at the end of the eighteenth century made this activity disappear.

Ferdinando, who was a foodie, was immediately invited by the local administration to try numerous pasta dishes characterized by that full-bodied and unmistakable flavor of the macarone cooked al dente, accompanied by the inevitable Gragnano wine.
The king, like his grandfather Ferdinand IV, was famous for his parents enthusiasm in front of a good banquet: here is that a few days later, on 12 July 1842, he had no doubts in appoint Gragnano as the supplier city of pasta for the Royal House of Bourbon. The fame of the city depopulated throughout the kingdom.

In 1850 there were 100 pasta factories that produced more than 1000 quintals of pasta per day: record numbers for the time. The entire Via Roma was remodeled to favor the exposure to the sun of Gragnano pasta, in order to dry it in the center of the town.

Francesco Alvino told in a book of 1845 the industrial adventure of a man Nicola Fenizior who wanted to make the first industry in Italy for the production of pasta with automated machines with steam. It was one revolution received very badly by the ancient local artisans: the Fenizio pasta factory guaranteed production every day 10 times higher compared to traditional manual activities.
Envious and unable to innovate, the competitors tried in every way to have the factory closed. Alvino tells us that there were numerous causes and acts of sabotage, but the company continued to make a fortune. In the following decades everyone introduced machines.

After the unification of Italy the production of Gragnano pasta continued to grow and it was enriched with a new grain: the Taganrog, which was already widely used under the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies but which, with a new market who went from Milan to Palermo, had to be imported to be able to satisfy the immense demand for pasta from all over Italy. It was opened in 1885 a railway station in the city to allow the connection with Naples, in order to quickly bring the macaroni to the rest of Italy.

To understand the importance that was given to Gragnano pasta, just think that Umberto I attended in first person at the inauguration of the new trading post.

pasta di Gragnano Fabbrica
Macaroni factory in Gragnano: in the 19th century the city was a huge open-air pasta factory. It is estimated that the 75% of citizens worked in companies related to the art of grain.

Rossini and the obsession for pasta

The obsession with macaroni it was a typical feature of many Italians.

Someone knows something about it Gioacchino Rossini who, during his stay in Naples, fell in love with pasta. At the time the most famous pasta factories were those of Torre Annunziata and Gragnano, but the legendary composer turned to the latter: it was done send periodically from Naples huge quantities of pasta and even invented the recipe for "Macaroni alla Rossini“.
There is a letter from 1863 in which the composer signed himself "Rossini without pasta“: He complained for the delays in the delivery of a cargo from Naples.

maccheroni alla rossini
Macaroni alla Rossini (Photo from "The Italian kitchen")

And what happened then?

Then came the '900 and, after World War II, a large part of the productive fabric of Southern Italy went lost under the bombs. In the times of the reconstruction it was difficult for the Neapolitan pasta factories to face the aggressive competition from large companies in Northern Italy, also facilitated by one more central location, which got the better of the international market and relegated the Gragnano pasta to local excellence. After 1980 they remained alive only 8 pasta factories of the over 100 active just a century earlier.

But the city of the Lattari Mountains did not demoralize. And today she managed to get back on international limelight (also mentioned by Forbes how "best in the world!“) Thanks to an excellent industrial policy that has brought a new image of local pasta factories.

And today, when al supermarket we find ourselves choosing a product of Gragnano, we know we have the son of one in our hands tradition which has its origins inAncient Greece.

-Federico Quagliuolo

References:
Domenico Camardo, Mario Notomista, Gragnano. From the valley of the mills to the city of pasta, Amalfi Culture Center, 2013
Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi, Pasta: history and culture of a universal food,
http://agricoltura.regione.campania.it/tipici/tradizionali/pasta-gragnano.htm
https://www.consorziogragnanocittadellapasta.it/storia-del-prodotto/
https://www.forbes.com/sites/liviahengel/2019/04/30/why-pasta-di-gragnano-is-the-best-in-the-world/#4aa05b1a38d5
https://web.archive.org/web/20190818023615/https://www.taccuinigastrosofici.it/ita/ricette/contemporanea/paste-risotti/Maccheroni-alla-Rossini.html
http://web.tiscali.it/centonze/alvinocast.htm
https://web.archive.org/web/20120218194953/http://www.comune.gragnano.na.it/cms/pagina.php?id=52

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