Pizza is a baked dish comprising of a piece of flattened bread made out of wheat, water, salt and yeast, and topped with tomato sauce, cheese, a combination of condiments, vegetables, meat, and seafood. The simple nature of the dish, its inherent flexibility and the easy, informal manner which it is consumed has made pizza into one of the most widely loved cuisines in the world today.
A mouthwatering pepperoni pizza. Image courtesy of Dale Cruse
Origin of the Word Pizza
While the term pizza can be traced directly back to an Italian origin (it literally translates to ‘point’), its origin is a little cloudier as there are a number claimants competing for the rights. What we know for certain is that every ancient culture with the ability to cultivate and mill wheat is potentially able to invent pizza.
W.P Edwards, in his much quoted ‘Science of Bakery Products’, indicated that the first recorded historical reference to pizza appeared around 500BC involving the soldiers of the Persian king Darius I of the Achaemenid Empire, who were apparently using their shields to heat up unleavened bread and topping them up with dates and cheese.
Fast forward 300 years later, Marcus Cato, the noted Roman historian, mentioned in passing in his tome of a similar dish, though this time the topping has progressed to include olive oil. Cato’s claim was substantiated by historical finds in the ruins of Pompeii, a city located near modern-day Naples, which was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Among the many items discovered there were a few that pointed towards specialist bakeries with tools for flatbread baking.
The development of pizza tapered off after that, and only regained some ground with the introduction of tomatoes from the New World to Southern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Returning New World voyagers introduced, among many other items, a reddish, watery and sometimes sour fruit that was detested by the upper class and bourgeois.
Tomatoes for the masses
However, the common people of the land took an instant liking towards the vegetable (as they insisted on classifying the tomato as) and began to include it in most of their recipes, which probably explains the explosive growth of tomato consumption over the next century, as the continued aversion from the rich contributed to the low tomato prices. Farmers also found the land perfect for cultivating tomatoes which ensured the continuous supply of high-quality tomatoes to the region.
Families began to combine the cheap and tasty tomatoes with the equally cheap and tasty flatbreads – and the first prototype of the modern pizza was born. Enhanced further with a sprinkling of herbs and lards, pizza became famed throughout the region of Naples and eventually attracted the attention of the royalties themselves.
Umberto I (1844-1900), King of Italy, and the Queen, Margherita di Savoia (1851-1926), was so taken by the taste of the pizza, they immediately ordered for a kitchen to be built in the palace grounds exclusively for pizza making. This lifted the final cultural barrier, and pizza instantly became a mainstream cuisine.
What followed next was the mass migration of Europeans to the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, and along with the migrants, the concept of pizza made their way across the Atlantic. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Song of the day: The Decemberists – Sons and Daughters