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Lombardy: Food and Politics

Lombardy: Food and Politics
Garibaldi was immortalised in a British biscuit baked by Peek Freans after he spent a week in Newcastle.
In front of the improbably ornate Gothic prodding of Milan's Cathedral, the Duomo Square is filled, like all great Italian Piazzas from Venice to The Vatican, with flapping pigeons. Pigeon isn't big on Italian menus, though horse is. The most unctuous and delicious horse ragu is served in Verona, though English diners often squirm before they've sampled.
In 1935, from the Arengario overlooking the Duomo, Mussolini delivered an inflammatory speech which whipped up support for an Italian Empire, a new Risorgimento. That same year he invaded Ethopia and created Italian East Africa. You can find Ethiopian restaurants in Milan and Italian restaurants in Addis Ababa. Italians love coffee and Ethiopia sells bags of Arabica beans back to Italy to turn into macchiatos and cappuccinos. A typical Italian breakfast, they say, is composed of an espresso and a cigarette.
In 2009, in a corner of the square, Massimo Tartaglia threw a porcelain model of the Duomo at the neo-fascist Silvio Berlusconi and broke his nose. Berlusconi was born in Milan and owns one of its bitter footballing rivals, AC Milan. It's not know whether Tartaglia supported Inter.
Italy's political history has been played out in Lombardy – not just on its streets, but also on its plates. This is country whose biggest folk hero, Garibaldi, was immortalised in a British biscuit baked by Peek Freans after he spent a week in Newcastle.
Near to the Duomo, Cafe Mercanti on the Piazza Mercanti serves some of the most delicious pistachio ice cream you could wish for. The sheer creaminess of the bright green slicks of gelato make you wonder how Italians manage to live for so long. Enjoy a tub on the steps of the 13th Century Palace of Reason, where city bigwigs would push paper and plan the erection of the next phallic tower.
Eating is as central to life in Italy as breathing. At a wonderful trattoria, Nerino Diece, on Via Nerino, a first birthday party is taking place. The cake features an edible photo of the oblivious, chubby infant. As the cake is cut, the boy's seemingly endless multitude of Nonnas fuss over him.
At Nerino Dieci I feast on gratinated scallop and buffalo mozzarella, sirloin rubbed with rosemary and garlic, and tuna with a pistachio crust. Plates of samphire and fried zucchini complete the picture. As does one of the most devilish dishes yet to come from the heinous mind of a chef: sliced potatoes fried with butter, pecorino cheese and lardons. In the land of angels, it feels like they are dancing on my tongue. To fend off a heart attack, I may need to start believing in God. A bottle of 2008 Montecucco envelopes the meat course with a dizzying sophistication. I'm cowed. If you're in Milan you should eat here.
One of the friendly owners, Sandro, implores me to try a rum baba and I fear that if a stray match were to land in the dish my eyebrows would be a goner. The meal is rounded off with a shot of – yes – chocolate-flavoured grappa.
Mussolini laid the groundwork for Berlusconi in many ways – he slept with 5000 women. But Mussolini couldn't escape the people. They captured him on April 27th 1945 on Lake Como and killed him and his mistress the next day. They were then taken to Milan.
As places to die go, Como takes some beating. It appears as a flooded river valley lodged between steep-sided mountain peaks. The flatlands around Milan birth rice - the mainstay of the Lombard table is risotto. But up here the peaks reach toward heaven. At Blevio, a village on the lakeside, the house of an opera singer who shares her name with that other Italian carb staple has been transformed into a hotel where latter day Lotharios, fat of belly and thin of soul, entertain giggling younger consorts in the utmost comfort. The great soprano Giuditta Pasta lived at Villa Roccabruna, now re-titled as – punningly – the Castadiva Hotel.
The Orangery Restaurant here kindly seats us at the best table (journalists trumping oligarchs in the hotel hierarchy for one night only) overlooking the lake. It is one of the best dinner views in the world.
Across the lake at Cernobbio, we can almost see George Clooney's house. Like Italian politicians, Clooney is purported to have a fondness for women and wine. Sadly for one local restaurateur (who shall remain nameless) the Clooney party all picked up food poisoning after their Independence Day dinner this July. The news of the upset stomachs was broken on Twitter by Clooney's latest paramour, the wrestler Stacey Kiebler.
Our meal at The Orangery was without such incident, though was marked by the star turns of mozzarella deep-fried as you would some kind of maniacal cheese sandwich and of sea bass cooked whole, filleted at the table and served with the sweetest plum tomatoes.
Only the French can match the Italians in sheer unabashed gastronomic jingoism. And it was the Italians who created French food in the first place. Italian emigrants spread the word of their food around the world - in Soho, Glasgow, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo. People say Italy is a monoculture; that food is its monomania. Perhaps. Things change slowly here – there are sushi joints in Milan, but in rural Italy things do move at a snail's pace. The slow food movement is also an Italian invention.
At Osteria di Via Monti on a deserted sidestreet in the pretty town which gives its name to Lake Como, we are the only diners on a Tuesday night. The chef pops out between courses for a fag and our stomachs feel like they might burst. Antipasti, followed by two types of pasta is a meal in itself. The tomato ragu is exceptional. Pork steak with, ahem, cheesy peas is more than enough (literally) but tiramisu rounds off a most traditional meal. One wonders what the chef would have done if we'd gone somewhere else?
Italy is ruled by food and it seems food is ruled by Italian practices. Business runs in the blood: Berlusconi proved it; those emigrants proved it with their restaurants and in their inspirations for Martin Scorsese's films. I thought from Raffaele's broken English emails that he'd invited us the Osteria as guests to explore his menu and write about his joint. But as our meal ends he implores, with a broken smile, “How would you like to pay?” Inevitably perhaps, I reach for the Euros.
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24 September 2012
By: Chris Beanland
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