At the heart of the Italian pasta story is the mind-bogglingly vast Barilla factory in Parma
It’s a museum exhibit that looks like stuff I’ve swept out of cupboard corners. Two small sheafs of dry brown spaghetti, not much longer than matchsticks, sit in small glass domes inside the cool stone walls of a former monastery outside Parma in northern Italy. And their claim to fame? They may well be the world’s oldest surviving sample of factory-produced spaghetti.
It’s difficult not to laugh. We’re in a pasta museum for a start and I jokingly wondered if it would be full of very old pieces of pasta displayed in glass cases. Now we’ve rounded a corner to find these samples from 1837 and 1838. They survived because they were the subject of a court case between a prison governor and a pasta manufacturer. Letters included samples sent by the governor to back his case for cancelling the contract. In his opinion the pasta wasn’t up to scratch.
Italians have taken their pasta deadly seriously for centuries. And the rest of the world has seen the funny side. It made for the best prank in television history on April Fool’s Day in 1957 when Panorama showed women in gingham aprons harvesting strings of pasta from trees and laying them in baskets. In 1950s Britain, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to believe that spaghetti grew on trees.
Pasta has been made in Italian factories since the 19th century, and we’re on a trip to see the heart of the Italian pasta story, the mind-bogglingly vast Barilla factory in Parma. The Italian food company is one of the world’s biggest food manufacturers with a €3 billion annual turnover. Its Parma factory is the biggest dried pasta plant in the world.
The factory floor is so vast workers use bicycles to get around. The company is on a mission to corner the carbs on our plates and persuade us to eat like Sicilians.
Sicilians eat the largest amount of pasta per head in Italy, we’re told, a whopping 30 to 35 kilos of it every year. In Ireland we average about three kilos per year per head.
Eleonora Allegri is Barilla’s senior European sales manager and she sketches out the company’s history before we don white coats and peaked hats to get a tour. A colour-coded world map shows just how vast Barilla is. “Except in Africa, we are everywhere,” Allegri says.
The company history is a story of fathers and sons, ambition and expansion. Barilla grew from a city bakery run by Pietro Barilla senior in 1877 to a pasta factory in 1910 built by Pietro’s son Riccardo. Later Riccardo’s son, the handsome Pietro junior took the family business global. He built a larger plant on the outskirts of Parma and in 1970 he sold it to an American multinational. Nine years later Pietro Barilla bought it back, earning himself a place in the heart of Parma’s citizens for bringing it all back home. He died in 1993. His three sons, Guido, Paolo and Luca are now in charge.