Allegrini 2018

How the table changes: a journey back in time in “Il Pranzo di Natale” by Mario Soldati

In the 1958 Rai documentary, a cross-section of the society and culture of the Belpaese between economic boom and gastronomic tradition

If there is a time of year when culinary tradition resists the passage of time, in all its richness and diversity, it is Christmas. Religious and family feast, as Mario Soldati defined it in the Rai documentary “Il pranzo di Natale - cibi genuini” (Christmas lunch - genuine food) of 1958, today it has become something else, the mirror of a society founded on values very different from those of sixty years ago, but still a moment of conviviality and joy, at least in the intentions. Soldati's work is a brief journey through the gastronomic traditions of the Belpaese of that time, in a Rome at the height of the economic boom but with the memory of the Second World War still intact. The narration starts from the very definition of the Christmas Lunch, which in some cases is the Christmas Eve dinner, and therefore inevitably lean, in others it becomes a dinner to be enjoyed after midnight Mass, and then becomes fat, but the common thread is that of an almost spasmodic search of roots, ties and traditions, in a big city where yesterday even more than today, people from every corner of Italy, migrated from the North and South, from cities and countryside, met.
The result is a history of the country through the cuisine, which starts in Luzzano, in the province of Reggio Emilia, from where the Zavattini family arrives, who bring to the table tortelli made with pumpkin from Mantua, fried mullet from the Po and Spongata, all washed down by Lambrusco di Sorbara, because wine has always played a central role, and perhaps more than now. Mario Soldati then takes us to the shoemaker of Primo Carnera and what we would call today VIPs, Angelo Gatto, who arrived from Pachino in the 10’s, and who in Rome finds his roots in pastizzo, a savory cake between two discs of pasta filled with vegetables, sausage and cheese, but also in a rich selection of desserts, from gnoccata to mustard with must.
From the Canavese area, and therefore from Piedmont, told by Soldiers how and better than a geography teacher, comes Lorenzo Bergardi, who in the distant 1958 celebrated Christmas as the vast majority of Piedmontese still celebrate it today: agnolotti, perhaps with the white truffle of Alba, already then an excellence for true gourmets (“we talk about color television, but for the future, we would need olfactory television”, says a prophetic Soldati) and capon, with the Passito di Caluso from Erbaluce considered “better than the Port and the Sherry of Jerez”.
Baroness Aurelia Ricci Michetti, Golden Ladle of Italian cuisine, takes viewers into the rich cuisine of Abruzzo, where at the table is a triumph of opulence, a symbol of Italy that, perhaps for the first time, no longer had to deal with hunger: crustoli, spaghetti with anchovies, pan-fried broccoli, snails, cod in tomato sauce, beans in oil, spit-roasted eel, salad, walnuts, chestnuts and nougat, everything but strictly lean. Finally, the last stop is at Mario’s Tuscan trattoria, to discover the cuisine that Soldati defines as “a compendium of Italian culinary tradition”, where, in a topical consideration, the product counts more than its transformation. In this sense, pork livers become a “logical food”, and the preservation of blackberries is a “definitive answer to the denigrators of the pleasures of the table”. Because yesterday as today, at least in Mario Soldati's high, sometimes very high vision, cooking was something extremely serious, able to offer a key to interpret reality, and diversity, impossible for any other world.

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