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