The swindlers' dinner

Written by  Romano Guzzinati

From Il mulino del Po [The mill on the Po] by Riccardo BacchelliThe Po

Bologna native, Riccardo Bacchelli, has painted an unforgettable picture of Ferrara and its environment with his novel Il Mulino del Po, from Napoleonic incursions into Russia up to the Great War. In the three volumes comprising the work, he describes the heroic deeds of the poor locals to act as a background to the historical events occurring in Italy and Europe. Specifically he recounts tales of the Scacerni family who were millers on the Po river at Guarda Ferrarese, a village so inextricably linked to the river that the church was built to face out over it rather than its parish or parishioners. One of the many interesting stories in the novel describes a banquet; or rather a feast where the food served was as opulent and enjoyable as its guests were foul and repugnant. It was 1855 and Ferrara was struck by a terrible cholera epidemic. People who had "villas and money"cappelletti sent their families to the countryside to escape infection while the rest had to face the horrors of the isolation hospitals, reopened in the Mortara barracks near Porta San Giovanni, which had previously been an old monastery. "Tangentopoli" is not just a current phenomenon, filling one's pockets at the expense of the State (at the time it was the Papal States) was quite common at the time. This mainly involved the smuggling of wheat since it was severely forbidden to export wheat from Ferrara at that time due to the scarcity of cereals. The idea was to prevent the famine from becoming more widespread. We are told that it was the revenue officer of the Ferrara legation himself, Virgilio Alpi, who bribed customs officials guarding the shipments made from Serravalle on the Po (the river was the northern border of the Papal States, since Veneto was occupied by the Austrians) and set up a network of persons, including Pietro Vergoli, a rich landowner of Ro – another village on the Po – to take part in the illicit supply and transport of grain for his trade, at the same time cornering the market in“salame da sugo” the surrounding countryside. The fraud worked on a very simple basis: wheat, beans and rice were transported to Serravalle with normal packing lists. The cereals were formally registered as having been unloaded there in the Papal States, but actually the cartloads of material were smuggled by ferry to the Venetian side of the river, with the complicity of the corrupt customs officials. It was then easy for the judge at the time to discover the fraud, because even though the documents were apparently valid, the quantities of the food unloaded at Serravalle were enough to feed the entire population of a big city for months, and not just a few inhabitants of a small village. Therefore, while the cholera raged in Ferrara, Alpi summonsed Vergoli without giving him a choice and said "In three days I will come and pay you a visit, but remember, we want to still be eating when the sun rises in the sky, so have your cook make the necessary preparations". "The group arrived at dusk, and lined their stomachs with a few glasses of dry white wine. Then they sat down to eat ... but silence descended as theyThe mill on the Po sat and fell upon the bowls full to overflowing with cappelletti in broth...". Four soup tureens were served, followed by a liver and pigeon pie in butter sauce.... The table was then piled with chicken cacciatore, roasted spring chickens and grilled pullets ... once the chicken dishes had been finished, a huge bowl of salad along with a bowl of spinach and cooked greens arrived. After the vegetables had been eaten, boiled meat, veal stew, pan chops and grilled chops and a huge roasted ox. All washed down with sangiovese wine.

Celery followed the roast, then steaming liver, beef and tongue sausage and a few huge dishes of oven roasted kid with potatoes, roast pigeons and guinea fowl: they made the rounds of the table but were brought back untouched to the kitchen as the guests couldn't manage another bite.... Finally a frozen milk pudding was accompanied by a trifle soaked in alkermes and a few bottles of rum. This conked the guests out completely, and all fell to the table, shattered. The writer expresses his severe disapproval of the "gang" of swindlers in his description of the feast, emphasising the vulgarity of their behaviour there. The food and wine served merit attention, especially the cappelletti in broth, the liver, beef and tongue sausage, the trifle and the wines, all typical of the Ferrara area in the Emilia-Romagna region.

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