Lambrusco doesn’t have a good rep, not even back home. ‘It’s the Coca-Cola of wines’, said to me once the mother of a high school friend. ‘Shut up, old bag’, is the comeback that I didn’t quite muster the wit to utter on the day. So it’s a sparkling red: sue me. Sue all of us, citizens of those parts of Emilia, Lombardy and Veneto where the Lambrusco grapes have been harvested for the last couple of thousand years, give or take.
When I was a kid, every year come November my grandfather would buy a few large demijohns of freshly produced Lambrusco and we’d bottle it together using a lever-operated corker, a simple but elegant machine designed to squeeze the greased cork whilst pushing it into the top of the bottle. It would take us the best part of a weekend to fill the little room under the stairs with fifty or so bottles of thick brown or green glass, and it was tremendous fun. I vividly remember the cocktail of smells, as well as the wine’s taste, naturally, which was far from forbidden. On the Sundays of our visits I was always allowed a finger or so in my glass - the colour of the local red Lambrusco is so potent that even four-fifths of water aren’t enough to quite turn it pink. And then on those occasions when we had cappelletti there was the ritual of bev’r in vin, that is to say, serve some cappelletti in a little bowl ahead of the main course and pour half a glass or so of Lambrusco directly into the hot beef and chicken stock.
Lambrusco has been part of the popular Mantuan diet for centuries, but in fact of every local diet, because the cuisine of the area is peculiar in this: the rich and the poor ate the same foods and drank the same drinks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the income disparities in the old Dukedom were any less crushing than in the rest of the North or the country as a whole - more than a few de facto forms of serfdom were alive and well when my mother was born, in 1931 - but there was no rich cuisine and poor cuisine: everybody read from the same recipe book. The menu of the most important meal of the year - dinner on Christmas Eve - is emblematic in this regard: marinated eel and pumpkin tortelli are dishes that anybody could afford to make. And that’s the reason why to this day in posh restaurants throughout the province, and especially to the South-East, across the Po, where Lombardy meets with Veneto and Emilia, the specialities are the very same that my grandmother and my great-grandmother used to prepare and be revered for in their lifetimes, poverty and all.
That fundamental cultural commonality was the basis of an egalitarianism of sorts, the same egalitarianism that the fierce reactionary Giovanni Guareschi struggled to uphold in his books, in which the archest of arch-enemies - the Christian Democratic priest Don Camillo and the Communist Mayor Peppone - joined forces whenever big city people came to town to tell the locals how to run things. Food and drink were a common language and along with religion they presided over the natural order of things, which was that some people owned the land, and profited from it, and some other people worked the land. It had been like that for as long as anybody could remember, and when push came to shove not even Peppone himself believed that it could or in fact should change.
This was true also of nonna’s family. She had just turned six years old when her mother died, and her father - a farm labourer and a proud socialist - was left to raise six children on his own, but not once did he, in his words, ‘climb the steps of the town hall’, that is to say, ask for financial help or services from the municipality or the state. Indeed, archconservatives like Don Brash would find much to like in his reliance on ‘community and family mechanisms of support’. Such were the paradoxes of grafting Marxist ideas in a society whose mindset was so atavistically patriarchal and feudal.
It went like this: there were the landowner (padrone), the renter (affittuario), the sharecropper (mezzadro) and the farm labourer (bracciante). The owner would do none of the work; the sharecropper and the renter would do most of the work, and share the proceeds with the owner or pay him a fixed fee, respectively; and the labourers picked up whatever seasonal work was available, for meagre pay. When no such work existed, for example following the devastating frosts of 1929 and 1930, or due to the work shortages of 1945, very limited solidarity mechanisms kicked in and some extra work was found or manufactured so that the labourer population - on which the system depended in the good years - could survive and not be forced to relocate, or at least not permanently, but mostly they were left on their own devices. Somehow the poverty never became unendurable for too many, seeing that the province never experienced mass emigration, unlike nearby Veneto, but it would be a bold person who called it a just society, or who didn’t see the merit of the post-war reforms that gradually ensured a measure of redistribution of the land to the people who worked it.
Guareschi was such a man, of course, and I’ll advance some other time a very partial defence of his appalling conservatism - like Pasolini, he believed that there was something worth salvaging in a rural culture that had remained virtually unchanged for centuries only to crash head-first against the brick wall of history. To me, besides the language and the stories it’s the flavours, the mnemonic glue of a lived tradition, the one thing I could carry with me on the other side of the planet. So this week for Christmas Justine and I are making cappelletti and yes, we’ll drink Lambrusco, and yes, it will be a nostalgic and sentimental gesture, but it’ll have something going for it as well: the sense of our beginnings, of a long and exhausting history with the occasional moment of cheer - for the food is glorious and quite frankly so is the wine.
During the last two trips home I had the opportunity to visit my cousin Bruno on the job as he helped make Lambrusco at the local winery, the Cantina Sociale di Quistello. I saw the farmers (including some distant relatives) arrive with their trailers loaded with grapes, help unload and wait for the must to be extracted, its sugar content tested and the results written in a journal to calculate their pay, just like the old sharecroppers who took their milk to the dairies - in Mum’s village there used to be one in every street - or their grapes to other wineries like this one: cantine sociali, that is to say local cooperatives, and in that model of communal work and shared resources the Left found a useful blueprint for reforming economic relations in the regions where it had a majority after the war.
But enough of that, for heaven's sake, it’s the holidays. Buy yourself a bottle of dry Lambrusco, it goes with everything. Seriously, my dad enjoyed dunking cake in it. What further endorsement could you possibly want?
I leave you with nonna’s recipe for cappelletti, and with my best wishes for the New Year. Cheers.
For the stock: half a chicken, 400g of chuck steak - or the piece that in Italian is referred to as the priest's hat, some butchers will know where to cut that - one clove of garlic, one onion, a celery stick, a carrot. Dump everything in when the water is still cold, bring to the boil then let simmer for three to four hours.
For the pasta: 4 eggs, 400 g of flour. Serves 4-5 people, add one egg and 100g of flour for each extra person. Make a fountain with the flour, break the eggs in the middle and incorporate using a fork. Once the fork no longer does the trick, knead by hand until the dough is even and smooth. Roll with a pin or with a pasta machine until it’s quite thin.
For the filling: One onion, one clove of garlic, 350 grams of lean beef meat, two sausages, one chicken kidney. Boil in a small pot with water for three hours. Remove garlic and onion and mix in a food processor. Add breadcrumbs, one egg and some Parmesan to the mixture and mix it some more by hand. If it’s too dry to mix with ease, add a tablespoon or two of the liquid from the small pot.
Cut the pasta in squares about 4-5 cm long. Place a little bit of filling on each square, then fashion the cappelletti as shown in the pictures on this web page. Leave to set for a few hours, preferably overnight. Bring the stock to the boil and cook the cappelletti for 10 minutes or so.
Before I go, Jolisa has revisited the Ihimaera saga in a terrific post that I urge you to peruse. I must also encourage you to visit Memory, Amnesia and Politics a new blog by Kathy Korcheck that maps from the outset a number of issues of memory studies that firmly belong in the public conversation. I had been waiting for somebody to set up such a blog since well before I kicked off mine. The wine label at the top is by none other than Fortunato Depero.