All the Fare of the Fair
In Italy conspicuous consumption has become an offence punishable by law — unless it takes place at a food festival, in which case it is a moral responsibility, says Andrei Navrozov
I MADE MY way to Florence from Cortina d’Ampezzo, where for the past half-century the Italian bourgeoisie had pretended to ski while in reality merely promenading in opulent furs in front of the Hotel de la Poste in postprandial stupefaction. This year, however, the resort was a ghost town, and not only on account of the snowless weather and a drizzly economy.
What hung over the Alpine resort like a barren cloud over the Monte Faloria was fear, planted there some months earlier, when a squad of tax police in civilian clothes took over the piazza in front of the famous hotel and began to harass the allegedly tax-evading strollers as the camera crews, and with them all of Italy, watched in helpless horror — or else, of course, with vindictive glee.
Likened by some of my Sicilian friends to Stalin’s show trials, the crackdown by the Entrate on the fur-clad fatcats in Cortina echoed as far as the cafes of Taormina, where the news that henceforth all cash transactions of more than €1,000 would be illegal was greeted with howls of sarcasm. In the capital city of Palermo, where I live, cash transactions of less than €1,000 are illegal — or at least viewed with derision by the men who matter.
Against this background, the exhibition of ‘Taste’, organised in law-abiding Florence by Pitti Immagine for the seventh year running, was more than politically incorrect, it was practically criminal — like a Trotskyite rally in Red Square in 1937. This is because the trade fair, attracting some 300 exhibitors and nearly 15,000 gastronauts from all over Italy, is unlike Carlo Petrini’s ‘Slow Food’, Oscar Farinetti’s ‘Eataly’ and all the other prominent foodie crazes in one important respect, namely that it is mounted and managed by the likes of Leonardo Ferragamo and Alessandro Grassi, people who have made their reputations promoting luxuries, not foodstuffs. In this business model, Qu’ils mangent de la brioche is promoted from a faux pas on the lips of a lady of leisure to a commercially sound proposition, even, perhaps, to a way of life.
And so, in a city where Gucci and Ferragamo have museums rather than shops — eat your heart out, Tamara Mellon — they manage to get away with it, even as the Italian bourgeoisie cower under the beds clutching pillowcases of undeclared cash to their bosoms.
The brioche was worthy of Marie Antoinette, incidentally, every crumb of it, as were the breathtaking displays of Lombardy panettone, whose very name — pan del ton, according to some etymologies — means ‘bread of luxury’. As was the Verona pandoro, and the lachrymose colomba — from Pavia, methinks, or somewhere like that.
THE WHOLE THING was nothing short of indescribable. How to fix in words, for instance, the mesmeric effect on the palate of the ‘Torta Barozzi’,
baked at the Pasticceria Gollini in Vignola, near Modena, since 1887? To employ the term ‘fudge’ would be, quite frankly, fudging it — I can think of nothing in Anglo-American gastronomic nomenclature that even begins to describe this cake, named after the town’s favourite son, Renaissance architect Jacopo Barozzi, known as ‘Il Vignola’. How to fix in words the practised movement with which Paola, great-granddaughter of the cake’s inventor, Eugenio Gollini, peeled back the shimmering silver foil of that fragrant cake? Perhaps by saying that its dignified insouciance, straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec, was reminiscent of Jane Avril, raising her skirts to adjust a garter?
As in a jeweller’s, where no sooner is the feminine eye seduced by the gleam of emerald than it yields to the sheen of pearl, in another passage of this gastronomic Alhambra — actually, Florence’s oldest railway station, the Leopolda, now an exhibition hall — hams from Arezzo gave way to Emilia sausages, and the sausages to Lazio cheeses, with a dizzying, kaleidoscopic profligacy. I sincerely hope that the shape of Enzo Recco, ‘master ager of provolone cheeses from Formia’, in crisp white apron and cap, is before me in my dying hour. I want to see him atop a pyramid of his mandarin-shaped cheeses, each an amber-coloured, bulbous mandarone of some 30 kilograms, signed in red ink by the taciturn maestro.
And if not old Enzo with that pungent profumo intenso e soavemente piccante of his, I would be just as happy in death were it perfumed for me by the salamis and bacons of Scherzerino, from Itri, halfway between Rome and Naples along the Appian Way, especially their pancetta alle erbe infused with sweet Muscat wine, their salsiccia al coriandolo stagionata made with chili and coriander, and their capocollo. To think that there was once a time in my life when I knew no taste more subtle than that of lardo di Colonnata!
I have said nothing of the wines that streamed all round me like the rivers of some louche paradise, but I want to end as I began — on a social rather than an epicurean note. Did you know that the original title of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was Bella Confusione? The Italians really are the masters of turning a pretty kettle of fish into a historic bouillabaisse.
Read more by Andrei Navrozov