Is lasagna Bri­tish? The creators of television’s QI un­cover the lay­ers

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Living -

A slice of his­tory

Lasagna was re­spon­si­ble for a diplo­matic dis­pute be­tween Eng­land and Italy.

In 2003, re­searchers study­ing the me­dieval cook­book The Forme of Cury in the Bri­tish Mu­seum found a recipe for a lasagna-style dish pre­pared by chefs for King Richard II in 1390. The aptly-ti­tled spokesman Mau­rice Ba­con de­clared that lasagna was an English in­ven­tion and de­fied “any­one to dis­prove it, be­cause it ap­peared in the first cook­ery book ever writ­ten”.

At first glance, Ba­con’s claim seemed unar­guable. The dish, called “loy­seyns”, was pro­nounced “lasan” and con­sisted of flat pasta sheets sep­a­rated by cheese sauce. The Ital­ian em­bassy in Lon­don im­me­di­ately is­sued a de­nial, while pa­tri­otic Ital­ian me­dieval his­to­ri­ans mounted a defence by pro­duc­ing records from 1316 that men­tioned a lasagna pro­ducer called Maria Bor­gogno. While both coun­tries can claim to have in­vented lasagna, no one knows where it was first made. An al­ter­na­tive the­ory sug­gests the dish came from An­cient Greece, where it was named af­ter lasanon (“cham­ber pot”). Other fin­gers point to An­cient Rome, where the phrase lasanon or lasanum meant “cook­ing pots”.

Re­gard­less of its prove­nance, lasagna has suc­cess­fully es­tab­lished it­self as one of the world’s most pop­u­lar dishes. In 2004, it re­placed chicken tikka mas­sala as Bri­tain’s favourite ready meal. Sains­bury’s sold 13.9 mil­lion lasag­nas, com­pared to 7.4 mil­lion chicken tikka mas­salas.

Lasagna is highly pop­u­lar in the north-east African coun­try of Eritrea. Res­i­dents of the for­mer Ital­ian colony make the dish with berbere, a hot spice mix­ture. Aus­tralian chef Ben­jamin Christie has cre­ated one of the most ex­otic adap­ta­tions of the dish: kan­ga­roo lasagna served with bush tomato chut­ney and lemon myr­tle.

Floren­tine lasagna was se­lected as part of a spe­cial kosher space menu cre­ated for the first Is­raeli astro­naut, Colonel Ilan Ra­mon, who later died in the Columbia space shut­tle dis­as­ter of 2003.

The Amer­i­can armed forces cook­book has four recipes for lasagna. It in­cludes a “stan­dard” ver­sion plus lasagna with ground turkey, lasagna with canned pizza sauce and lasagna (frozen). While Bri­tish cooks use flat pasta pieces in their lasagna, Amer­i­cans use sheets that re­sem­ble cor­ru­gated iron. July is na­tional “Lasagna Aware­ness Month” in the US.

The most im­por­tant lasagna to have ever lived is the late Dr Lou Lasagna, con­sid­ered to be one of the most im­por­tant sci­en­tists of the 20th cen­tury. His ground­break­ing work on how dif­fer­ent peo­ple re­act to the placebo ef­fect was cited by Richard Hor­ton, ed­i­tor of The Lancet, as one of the 27 most no­table med­i­cal achieve­ments in a list that started with Hip­pocrates. Dr Lasagna, dubbed “Fa­ther of Clin­i­cal Phar­ma­col­ogy”, also in­vented “The Oath of Lasagna”, a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of the Hip­po­cratic oath that is used in many Amer­i­can med­i­cal schools to­day.

Lasagna shouldn’t be men­tioned at Lon­don’s Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur Foot­ball Club. A “dodgy” lasagna stood ac­cused of cost­ing the team £14 mil­lion af­ter sev­eral play­ers who had eaten the pie fell ill be­fore a key match against West Ham last year. The play­ers were later found to have con­tracted norovirus, oth­er­wise known as the “win­ter vom­it­ing bug” be­fore ar­riv­ing at the ho­tel that served the lasagna.

Tot­ten­ham’s malaise is not to be con­fused with “lasagna syn­drome”, which is a com­puter en­thu­si­ast’s term for an in­fu­ri­at­ing ex­cess of over­lap­ping “browser win­dows” that makes a task al­most im­pos­si­ble.

Leftover lasagna can be­come an elec­tric bat­tery. When the alu­minium foil cov­er­ing the lasagna touches a dif­fer­ent metal – say the stain­less-steel tray hold­ing your lasagna – and a con­duc­tor (in this case the tomato sauce), the three ma­te­ri­als cre­ate an elec­tric cur­rent. This oc­curs be­cause the stain­less-steel tray is mostly made of iron. The iron’s atoms hold on to their elec­trons more tightly than alu­minium atoms hold on to theirs. Given a chance, the tray’s iron atoms “steal” elec­trons from the foil’s alu­minium atoms via the tomato sauce.

Lasagna con­tests mea­sure weight rather than size. The largest recorded spec­i­men weighed 8,188lb, 8oz – the same as a white rhino.

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