Lasagna is a true Italian comfort food. Though most attribute the first modern recipe of lasagna from Naples, its history is much older. It is said that lasagna pasta is one of the oldest types of pasta.
In Ancient Greece, the meal was called Laganon. The name comes from the cooking method, not the ingredients. The flat, fermented, dough was cut into strips, and layered with sauce. The Greeks have since refined the recipe, which they know call Pastitsio.
The Roman version that is similar to lasagna was called Lasanum or Lasana (meaning container or cooking pot). Roman foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius described the meal in his recipes, later compiled in the manuscript de re conquinaria. Through historical references, it is clear that this was a meal enjoyed by many. The Roman Poet Horace refers to the meal and it is said that the great orator Cicero enjoyed it, as it was soft and easy to eat, especially for an older man with poor teeth.
Fast forward to the medieval times in England. The chefs of Richard II called it Loseyn in the 14th century manuscript a Forme of Cury. The spice trade from the east had just opened up, which exposed the west to many different cultures. The flavors and recipes of the Spanish, French, Italians and Arabs influenced the royal chefs. Though there were layers of pasta, there were no tomatoes in England at the time. The layers instead had different types of cheese, spices (nutmeg, as an example), and fresh herbs.
At the same time as a Forme of Cury, the Italians documented their recipe in the manuscript Liber de Coquina (The Book of Cookery). The recipes in Liber de Coquina closely describe what we know now as current day Lasagna. The chefs flattened the dough into thin sheets, and boiled them in hot water. The cooked dough was layered with cheese and spices. Later versions called for replacing water with chicken broth on non religious days or adding walnuts with thick layers of warm cheese.
Tomatoes, for most of early time in Europe, were not consumed, as they were considered poisonous.It is not until 1544 that tomatoes make an appearance in European cuisine, and 1692 in a recipe constructed in Naples. Now we are talking! The modern day lasagna in Naples, called lasagna di carnevale, is layered with ragu, meat (often sausage or fried meatballs), hard-boiled eggs, ricotta and mozzarella. The meal has a cousin, lasagne al forno, which is layered with thick ragu and béchamel sauce. For as many theories of the origin of the meal, there are bazillion versions of the dish around the world. Even in Italy, the pasta variations were regionalized based on what ingredients were readily available. In the South, lasagna dough was made from semolina flour, where the north used flour and eggs; though today Italian pasta that is commercial sold is made from durum wheat (semolina).
The Italian immigrants that came to American brought this cherished recipe with them to their new country. The meal was a staple food for many homes as the ingredients were inexpensive and could feed large families for multiple days. Each family had their own variation and recipes for the meal. Some preferred the traditional thick ragu and meat, while others enjoyed adding vegetables. Recipes adapted based on what the families could find, or afford. This cooking technique also became handy with leftovers. What ever the family had left over from the prior nights meal were often added to the layers as a way of avoiding food waste while making a tasty, affordable meal. In my family, lasagna was a favorite. Who doesn't remember the pan hitting the table with a thud; heavy with fresh pasta, generous amounts of ragu (it would be a disaster if there was not enough sauce, resulting in the meal being dry), and layers of ricotta and hot mozzarella.
In my cookbook, A Thyme and Place, I made a version celebrating the original recipe in a Forme of Cury. My recipe preserves the tradition of a tomato-less lasagna, slow cooked short ribs and béchamel become the star of the dish. Whatever version you prefer, lasagna is a cherished meal that continues to be enjoyed by all.