The Swiss are known for many things: mountains, chocolate, cheese and innovation. In 1957, the British learned we were famous for something else: harvesting spaghetti from trees.
On 1 April, 1957 the BBC news programme Panorama closed their news broadcast with what has now become known as one of the greatest April Fools stunts of all time. In a three-minute segment filmed on location in Castagnola, Ticino, on the shores of Lake Lugano, TV viewers watched as a family of spaghetti farmers picked spaghetti straight from trees, bringing in an ‘exceptionally heavy’ crop.
Over scenes of smiling peasants picking spaghetti and laying it out to dry, the narrator explains that the uniform length of spaghetti is thanks to ‘years of patient endeavour by plant breeders who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti’, and that the once menacing ‘spaghetti weevil’ has virtually disappeared. The segment closes with the pickers celebrating the harvest over a traditional plate of spaghetti and a mug of wine.
The spaghetti-tree hoax, or the Swiss spaghetti harvest, as it has variably come to be known, blindsided the British public. Many found the sober, professionally-produced segment, delivered by respected reporter and long-time Panorama anchor man Richard Dimbleby, absolutely believable. Despite Dimbleby closing the broadcast with ‘Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April’ – putting heavy emphasis on the last part – many British viewers thought it was anything but a joke.
Which is why the programme had hardly ended when the flood of queries began. To the many callers asking where they could get a spaghetti tree of their own, BBC exchange operators responded, ‘Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best’. And the National Office of Swiss Tourism in London patiently explained that vertical growing spaghetti verticalis, as it’s known in Latin, was native to Switzerland, whereas the Italians favoured spaghetti horizontalis.
Given our own current preoccupation with fake news, it’s interesting to consider how so many people could fall for a stunt that seems – in hindsight – so patently (and humorously) false. One reason is certainly the authority of the source: the BBC was only one of two television channels available to the British public, and Panorama had more than 10 million average viewers. In a time when many people still didn’t have television, saying ‘I saw it on TV’ could give any shared news item an air of seriousness and authenticity.
The other aspect is Britain’s particular relationship with food at that time. In 1957 the nation was just emerging from the long shadow of post-war austerity: rationing, which had curbed access to bread, tea, sugar, eggs, cheese, meats and other staples, was only fully ended in 1954. When celebrated food writer Elizabeth David published her revolutionary cookbooks A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) and Italian Food (1954) and opened English eyes to the wonders of Mediterranean cuisine, she did it knowing that garlic, aubergine, courgette, and olive oil were foreign curiosities likely unavailable to many of her readers.
Fresh or dried pasta may have been available in obscure ‘ethnic’ Italian restaurants in immigrant neighbourhoods like Soho, but it wasn’t until 1955 that an Italian restaurant, The Spaghetti House, opened its doors in central London. By 1957, the average English family may still have never eaten pasta in a restaurant, and if they ate spaghetti at home, it was probably from a tin.
Which means that the British – and when the segment was shared years later in the US, the Americans – might be forgiven for believing that the best spaghetti comes from Ticino on the shores of Lake Lugano, picked fresh from the trees.