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Defiant Italy - Pasta, Priests and Partigiani: The Politics of Italian Gastronomy

22/09/2014 11:15 BST | Updated 19/11/2014 10:59 GMT

For health reasons, we might advisedly avoid smoking its namesake as a cigar. As bread, however, toscano is a prized gastronomical delight in the region of its eponym. Prepared with fresh yeast, the loaf is traditionally insipid. I was once told that the lack of salt is intended to enhance typical flavours in certain Tuscan specialities, since toscano slices are commonly served to complement only the richest regional dishes. A plausible enough reason, even if here a more persistent antecedent logic beckons too, spawned in all likelihood by contingent seasons of socio-political unrest and probably expressed through an early form of consumer boycott by latifondi or mezzadrie families working the land in territories once well within the papal states. To these peasants, insipid bread would certainly have made sense, especially in 1531 when the reigning pontiff imposed a tax upon salt, and again in 1539 when his successor Paul III considerably raised the same tax, so sparking a popular insurrection at Perugia a year later.

In the Romagna, an aptly-named pasta known as strozzapreti, or 'priest throttlers', still sports the characteristically twisted form by which it is identified. Prepared in osterie and homestead kitchens of the region, the dish comes down to us as a somewhat contradicted tradition. Possibly the pasta originates from farming communities which, though needing the tenures the church was providing, would nonetheless have been resentful of their reliance upon the pope. Indeed for the Romagna the bitter-sweet relationship between parish and faithful spanned the full trajectory of its passage through time, beginning long before the term 'anti-clericalism' was ever coined.

Historically, the territory was not infrequently a theatre of flashy displays of insubordination which were as much creative as they were impulsive. Already notoriously anti-papal during its seignorial moment in the late middle ages when it teemed with Ghibellines, it would become fiercely Communist as a region centuries later. As such, the area was soon known for being a hotbed of Communism in Catholic Italy and was consequently included, together with Umbria, the Marches and Tuscany, within the country's so-called "Red Quadrilateral". No surprise therefore that, remembering the Cold War years, erstwhile activists still talk wryly of the 'strategic presence' maintained by the US in San Marino, a tiny independent republic near Rimini.

As for the role of the wartime Church here in Catholic Italy, the picture with which I grew up, even as a willing Mass-goer, was admittedly tinged by the colourful legacy left by the ambiguous pontificate of Pius XII. I was once gently chided for this reckless bias by a good-humoured local at a bar in nearby Santarcangelo who alerted me to the dangers of being 'anti-historical' and 'painting all clergy of the period with the same brush'. My animated interlocutor proceeded then to inform me between sips of caffè corretto that stories of churchmen collaborating with the fascists are arguably as numerous as those which include them among the bravest supporters of the Resistance. 'For instance,' enjoined he with a flourish, 'it is known that no less than five priests were among the 770 civilians massacred at Marzabotto by the Waffen SS for supporting the local partigiani.'

Though a relative newcomer to Italy, having spent a decade and a half here I no longer consider myself an outsider. Consoled by the fact that my enduring fascination retains much of the buoyancy it enjoyed when first I arrived in Rimini in 2000, I must also own that I have since been roused from my initial daze of uncomprehending awe. I still remember the lightning bolt which accompanied that sobering, albeit duty-bound, moment of enlightenment. It came with a no less clamorous admission on my part that my former passion for il bel paese was quickly falling in a downward spiral towards an indefensible superficiality which had, already by then, become frankly unsustainable anthropologically. It struck me at the time how easy it is to gaze spellbound at Italy's compelling cultural enchantments, only to stop dead in one's tracks once the glitzy infatuation fizzles out - much like some prolonged romance which remains blissful only for as long as nobody begins voicing unsettling expectations of commitment.

Fortuitously, it was mostly thanks to my geographical location that my whimsical flirtation became transformed into a more solid 'marriage' and I was finally restored to terra firma, even if it meant descending from Botticelli and Caravaggio to that less glamorous level of my fellow mortals where gunfire has raged and soldiers once fell for the highest stakes. I always knew that my city is squarely positioned on what was at one time the Gothic Line, that embattled front where some of the fiercest fighting of the war was fought, though it hadn't quite sunk in for me yet that Mussolini was born just 48 kms away from here, at Predappio. The villa too, at which he holidayed with 'Donna Rachele' during the interwar period, is in nearby Riccione. It was thus owing to my close proximity to these key territorial landmarks that I gradually began to mull over the question of whether it is at all possible to be even marginally involved in the civic or public life of a city without in some way claiming its history as one's own. Could it be, I quizzed myself, that by deciding to participate in Rimini's uncertain destiny I had also assumed, whether wittingly or no, some shared responsibility for its tortured past ?

Applying due caution I guess, when using the 'f' word I soon came to adopt an enquiring approach rather than our standard homily to Italians on how accountable they should all feel about their country's fascist past. Here my tentativeness derived less from any fear of a defensive or irritable retort than from my ignoble preference for self-preservation: I know better now than to naively expect that evoking memories of the farcical Repubblica di Salò at a restaurant will yield any more than the usual traffic of rehearsed opinions, served up as the same predictable minestrone of shame and blame - a quasi-scripted narration within innumerable individual accounts still very much in the telling. Popular debate on the issue seems to invariably grind to a halt at that precarious deadlock which still has ideas vacillating obstinately from self-righteousness to outright denial to interrogation of the nation en masse as if we were trying to choke some belated confession out of an entire generation.

Though lived within another dramatically divided society which was configured quite differently, my own story too includes experiences not dissimilar to what people might have encountered here. Indeed even today, occasional echoes return to challenge my complacency. A white South African born in Durban, my personal biography can stand on its own in testifying to much of the unpacked baggage accompanying some of my earliest memories of life during Apartheid. In subsequent years, unresolved questions from the time I grew up as a privileged child under a racist regime have, as always, remained legion. The same questions far outweigh any satisfactory answers which, to this day, come haltingly - when at all.

A former South African Defence Force member once confided to me that it can sometimes take insurmountable courage to live with one's past. Here in the Romagna, where the odd war wound still festers, that unhappy reflection has me grappling with the question of whether such courage could ever take a paradoxical turn - like the courage I occasionally read in the expressions of some few senior citizens in my city who, when invited to discuss the crimes and caprices of Italy's past, decide instead to either choose their words sparingly or else say nothing at all. Before the old, familiar spectre of fascism, I have come to discern in those silent faces a look which appears at first blush to lie somewhere between pensive melancholy and noble non-conformity. It all has me wondering about that loud, provocative silence - a silence I can never quite put my finger on but which I sense cannot be solely about denial. With the years I have come to suspect it may be a redeeming silence, one which carries with it the fertile seeds of genuine acknowledgement, perhaps even great responsibility.

Whether it be due to some unresolved hurt or anger or to a lingering sense of guilt, the raw human experience of those who lived through fascism, even at its most repressive, might only begin to serve an accurate articulation of that shared history after it is integrated with the honest contributions of later generations - then stoically chewed, carefully swallowed and finally processed over time.

With its resonances with the many revolutions boiling unseen beneath the hidden politics of Italian gastronomy, it's all rather like digesting a contrary dish of strozzapreti.