December 20, 2011

What do Italians do at Christmas?

Hersilia Press @ 11:37 am

Well, we eat, and we argue about politics, which is what we do most days of the year….

Italy being a Catholic country, on Christmas Eve is de rigeur to eat fish: I believe its origin resides in the necessity to fast before an important religious event. Abstaining from meat is a softer version of fasting, and fish is a good alternative.

Nowadays the real fasting requirement has been completely forgotten, as il Cenone della Vigilia (‘the big dinner of the Eve’) competes in size with the main Christmas and New Year’s meals. Italy having so much coastline, every region has its own version of the traditional dinner with local specialties: where I come from, Bologna, we usually have eel (grilled or stewed) which is typical of the Ravenna region nearby. Typical is also baccalà, dried and salted cod, which is cooked in as many ways as there are Italian villages.

On Christmas day, it is a meat feast: many regions have their own type of stuffed pasta. In Bologna you have tortellini (in broth or with cream) or lasagne, followed usually by a roast, which can be chicken, beef or pork, or often also guinea-fowl. It is not traditional to eat turkey in any region, as far as I’m aware. You also may have lesso, a cut of meat which has been used to make broth (for the above tortellini), which is then eaten with sauce (a green sauce made with capers, parsley and anchovies).

For dessert it is obligatory to consume a slice of panettone or pandoro (the former with candied peel and raisins, the latter a simpler sponge), which are original or Milan and Verona respectively but have spread throughout the peninsula. The tastier (but less traditional) ones are filled with chocolate or liqueur creams.

Another typical sweet is torrone, made of egg white, honey (or sugar) and almonds – it used to be rock hard but most of them nowadays are a bit softer (and a lot nicer to eat!).

Buon Natale!!

Filed under: Christmas,food and drink

December 14, 2011

Book review: River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi

Hersilia Press @ 10:22 am

The book is set in the plains of the River Po in the area of Parma during a bitter (or a normal?) winter and it is the first investigation of Commissario Soneri.  The two Tonna brothers disappear in close succession: one actually goes missing, the other falls out of a window.

In a land where the wounds of the second world war are still fresh for many and the fights between fascists and partisans seem to have transcended the generations involved, it is reasonable to suppose that these grudges are open.

Commissario Soneri is not local but comes from not very far away, and he can grasp the subtle political nuances soon. I found his girlfriend’s character a bit two-dimensional as well as irritating: she seemed to just complain about his lack of attention but she is the one who doesn’t want commitment, and I found her closer to the representation of a certain male fantasy than a real woman.  She doesn’t however have a great role in the book, which is incredibly atmospheric – possibly because I was reading about fog while the weather wasn’t so good here, but I really felt taken into those places.

The novel is set in modern times but the associations with the 1940s are frequent and strong. The book is as much about the modern investigation as it is about the different lives of these people in a disrupted context as was a war and its aftermath.

Like many Italian novels, this is not an all-action type of book: there is a lot said about people and history rather than gunfights (well, there are no gunfights at all actually). I read this book in English, and the technical navigational terms have hindered my reading a bit, being a non-native speaker, but my impression is that this aspect wouldn’t have been different had I read the Italian version.

I did like the book, but perhaps something atypical or unexpected, either in the plot or in the characters, would have really enriched my reading. I do, however, very much like the setting, both geographical and historical: I liked the links with historical events of that particular time, and I think Varesi’s characterisation of the two factions (fascists and communists/partisans) was spot on and extremely interesting. This is to me a fascinating time of Italian history and a brilliant time to explore in a crime novel.