Tortellini as you find on sale in a delicatessen

A New Year's Story

With the start of 2009, it seems appropriate to begin a series of short stories about my life in Italy with this one about tradition, food and the new year...

For a few years back in the early 1990's, one of my closest friends in Italy would invite me back to his home for the New Year's Day lunch.

Back then he was living with his parents in a tiny town on the southern edge of the Veneto, right next to the River Po which separated them from the region of Emilia-Romagna. This was as far away from the tourist centres as one can possibly imagine, an almost forgotten corner of rural Italy lost in the flatness of the Po valley, the back of beyond unknown not just to foreigners but to other Italians, even to those Italians living within the same region.

My friend, let's call him Mauro, came from a family of humble means. His father was a cobbler, if I recall, and his mother helped with the family income by assembling those little plastic toys one sometimes finds as occasional gifts in cereal boxes. Mauro was working for a small company churning out size and cutting specifications for mass-produced clothes. He had big plans of becoming a fashion designer one day, a master tailor running his own design house in the vein of Gianfranco Ferré, his haute couture hero whom he looked up to for ultimate inspiration.

Mauro's own designs were anything but similar to Ferré's. It would be an understatement to say that he had a vivid imagination. Mauro had some of the most outrageous ideas which he would fervently put to test, diligently tailoring the clothes to fit on himself, with details he would alter over time. He once made a jacket with each shoulder ending in a point, like something one would imagine in a science fiction movie, worn by some highly-evolved alien starship captain from the distant future. He wore that jacket one wintry night in Venice at a private dinner held during Carnival time, where prior to serving our appetizer, someone complimented him on his rather imaginative carnival costume... .

Mauro and I had met at a cultural seminar some years before. He took an instant liking to me, possibly because he was drawn to eastern cultures but more likely because his penchant for the strange and unusual made me stand out in his eyes amongst the Italians.

We soon became friends even though we hardly have anything in common. His eccentric dressing and outlook in life made him interesting, even if sometimes embarrassing to be around with in public. But despite occasional stares from strangers and the mildy sarcastic remarks from others, he never had a bad thing to say about anyone. Mauro had a heart of gold.

Polesella from the air - right by the side of the River Po separating Veneto (above) from Emilia-Romagna (below)

So here I was on New Year's Day, taking the morning train on an hour's journey from Mestre to Rovigo, whereupon Mauro would pick me up and take me to his little town next to the longest river in Italy.

It took about twenty minutes to drive from Rovigo to Mauro's hometown in Polesella. With a population of slightly less than 4000, it hardly qualifies as a neighbourhood in an HDB new town, yet it is a self-contained municipality with its accompanying hamlets, villages and farmland. Mauro's parents lived in a council flat in a nondescript estate no different from thousands of other dreary public housing neighbourhoods found all over the country. If it weren't for the fact that we had to drive past the edge of the Po to get to the compound, you could easily have been anywhere at all within Italy.

Having been invited to lunch, I had brought a gift with me—a bottle of spumante—always an easy and presentable item which one could open and drink in company after a meal. As Mauro led me upstairs to his flat, I held the bottle with me, ready to present it to his parents when I came through the front door. I pondered upon the conversation I would have with them, and wondered if they were inclined to socialise and chat, or perhaps preferred to limit themselves to polite conversation.

As it turns out, Mauro's parents spoke a dialect which was utterly unintelligible to me. We were still within the region of Veneto, but according to Mauro theirs is a dialect closer to that of Ferrara on the other side of the river than that of Venice or Padua. To me it didn't sound even vaguely Italian, dialect or otherwise. I simply couldn't understand a word. Mauro had to translate everything they said.

Tortellini in brodo

Well, that certainly determined how little conversation went on that day.

As tradition would have it, lunch on the first of January meant a practically invariable menu. First on the list was tortellini in brodo, a dish consisting of little stuffed pasta rings in chicken broth. You could find ths pasta in supermarkets all over Italy, with a filling usually made with a mixture of cured meats. Nowadays one could also find this in supermarkets in Singapore.

Now, Italian mammas are famous the world over for being excellent cooks. And Mother's cooking, as anyone would tell you, Italian or otherwise, is simply the best. It is the peak of perfection, the reference to which everything else is compared, including dinners made by one's own wife. Why, some have even cited this as grounds for divorce.

All this did not apply to Mauro's mother, however. As Mauro himself freely admitted later that day, she was not a particularly good cook.

Mauro's mother cooked the same dish every day because that's just what the father wanted — the same dish every day. Apparently he found assurance in a constant, unchanging way of life. By this logic then, she has hardly any practice in cooking that day's meal of tortellini in brodo, which she has prepared not with factory-made tortellini bought from the neighbourhood supermarket, but entirely by herself — right down to the pasta dough, the meat filling and the chicken broth.

The truth was revealed soon enough in the tasting. The tortellini themselves weren't actually bad. Apart from the few which came apart during the cooking process, they were rather acceptable. I was not expecting restaurant fare in any case, and so some inconsistency was not surprising, as was the slight overcooking. But in her enthusiasm, Mauro's mother had added too much salt into the broth, and sadly, that made it quite difficult to consume without a generous glass of water on the side. By the time the first course was over, I had imbibed enough to keep myself hydrated for the rest of the day.

Cotechino and zampone on display in a shop

But of course, this was just the first course.

The traditional New Year's Day menu would continue with a main dish of either cotechino or zampone. Those who have never set foot in Italy during winter would probably have never heard of these. From what little I have found out, the cotechino is a giant sausage filled with coarsely ground pork meat and fat. This in itself is nothing unusual, but what makes this sausage different is the third main ingredient of pig skin, also coarsely chopped, which is generously added to the mix along with a special blend of spices. The zampone has more or less the same filling as a cotechino, but is made even more special because the filling goes not into a sausage casing but the deboned forelegs of the poor pig, so one gets to see the little trotters displayed on the serving dish.

Both the cotechino and zampone are prepared in the same way—gently boiled for hours on end, and then cut into 1cm slices for serving. With all that pig skin in the mix, the first thing one notices is the gelatinous texture, both in the look and feel of the dish. Someone else once used a more flowery choice of words to describe this: it leaves a very sticky and unctuous feel in the mouth. And this is even more pronounced with the zampone, because one is meant to eat the encasing trotter together with the stuffing.

The thing is, I am not at all fond of strange textures when it comes to eating, certainly not a meat dish that can be described as unctuous or gooey. I don't like the rubbery consistency of skin either, certainly not in my mouth. But being New Year's, I had to prepare myself to eat this, hoping against hope that I would be surprised by the skinless version of the dish. Mauro's mother proudly brought out slices of zampone.

It does not take much to infer that this is a very heavy dish. As one blogger puts it, it sits in your stomach like a brick, and I was to have my first taste of this. But something else needs to be eaten together with this to tone down all that heaviness. So after placing two slices of zampone onto my plate, Mauro's mother ladled a spoonful of the obligatory side of lentils to complete this dish.

Slices if cotechino (or is it a zampone?) cooked with lentils. Not a pretty dish but there are many who just love this on New Year's Day.

I hate lentils.

For me, eating the dish easily beats the two mouthfuls of black pudding I had for breakfast one morning in Glasgow during summer school (and I only realised what black pudding really was while masticating my second mouthful). In both cases, the flavour was pleasant enough, but my goodness it really did feel like a brick falling into my stomach.

I couldn't bring myself to eat the thick surrounding pork rind that day in Mauro's flat. I had to set that aside and obediently eat the contents along with the detested lentils.

So in the end, on New Year's Day, I finished a traditional meal of dishes I didn't much care for, made by the one Italian mamma who couldn't really cook anyway, and who happened to speak in a tongue I couldn't decipher. It took me one and a half hours to get to Mauro's house and another one and a half hours to get back home by evening. A good 6 hours in all counting the time spent there. The memory of those slices of zampone was so overpowering I can't even remember what dessert we had after that. ...or whether we eventually opened that bottle of spumante I brought.

Still, Mauro's mother must have spent a huge amount of time making the meal. The pasta dough, the filling and the chicken broth — all these needed to be made the day before. And if one is not in the habit of making these things, one would surely take a much longer time to prepare them. And then there's the zampone, all that time taken to reduce pig skin into a quivering, gelatinous mass. That would probably have taken the whole morning on New Year's Day as well.

One and a half days in all. For a family who made ends meet by assembling little plastic toys, it must have taken an enormous toll on their part, both physically and financially. And all because I was coming for lunch.

I can't begin to say how touched I was to have been a part of this. I was invited back another two years for the same lunch with the same dishes, until Mauro moved out of the flat and went to Florence seeking a better job. I have not been back to Polesella since.

Some years later, Mauro told me that they found a tumour in his mother's brain and that by then it was already too late to do anything about it. Six months was all it took before she passed away. The father was by then also in poor health, and with her gone there would be no one to cook the same dish for him every day. He eventually had to move into a nursing home. Mauro's mother was the constant in his father's life, the constant around which the uncertain and ever-changing world revolved. And she was no more.

This I remember on every New Year's Day.

Couple coming out of restaurant near the Rialto market in Venice
Stepping out into the world

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