The Marco Polorisation of Italian politics

The renowned professor emeritus of semiotics, Humbugo Ego, was working on a treatise on the fundamental reason behind the renowned volatility of the Italian political arena, which now featured a prime minister widely billed as being further to the right than Clint Eastwood playing a double role in a remake of Dirty Harry.

Since the end of World War 2, the country has had 68 governments in 76 years. Brow wrinkled in thought, the professor tracked down the causative factor responsible for this rapid turnover of governance. And the individual responsible for it was that 13th century Venetian gadabout, Marco Polo who, having made himself a tourist long before tourism was invented, landed up in China.

In China, Marco made a great discovery – noodles. And feckless fellow that he was, he brought his discovery back home to Italy, where it became not just an overnight success but a permanent obsession, changing the course of the country’s history. A comestible the length of which could be measured by a metric ruler gave an entirely new meaning to a long, if not leisurely, lunch.

Up until then, everything was va bene. But then the innate Italian genius for creative individualism, particularly with regard to la cucina, took over, and Marco’s Chinese discovery became a matrix for alimentary avatars of a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, and significations.
The professor sighed a professorial sigh. Charles de Gaulle had once asked how one could govern a country that had 246 kinds of cheese. But what would the redoubtable general have said, or done, if he’d been faced with what could be described as a culinary cavalry charge of over 400 varieties of viands that could trace their genealogy to the Chinese fellow traveller Marco had brought back from his wanderings?

Before you could say spaghetti (plural of spaghetto, diminutive of spago, or thin string), you had spaghettini, which denoted string that was even thinner, and spaghettoni, which connoted thicker string. They were also given numeric classifications, with spaghetti being labelled No. 5, spaghettini being No. 3, and spaghettoni called No. 8.

And by the time you’d counted uno, duo, tre – or, in this instance, cinque, tre, otto, there was macaroni, and ravioli, and rigatoni, and fusilli, and cannelloni and farfalle, and penne, and linguini, and bucatini, and vermicelli (made in Genova, and also called Angel Hair a.k.a. No. 9), and tagliatelle, and pappardelle, and trofie, and casercecce, and gemelli, and rotini, and malfadine, and conchiglie, and lumache, and lumaconi, and …

Basta! Enough! But it wasn’t. Because there was bigoli from Veneto, and strozzapreto from Emilia Romagna, also known as Priest strangler, which, according to folklore, when the local citizenry gave it to greedy priests they would gobble it so fast as to choke. From Tuscany emerged gigli, which translates as ‘lilies’, and is a speciality of Florence.

Not to be outdone, Abruzzo, in central Italy came up with chitarra, which means ‘guitar’, and is long and thin, and is cut using a harp-like device. Su filindeu – the thread of the gods – which is boiled in broth and topped with grated cheese is unique to Sardinia, and for over 300 years it has been made in the village of Lula by women who have kept its preparation a secret over the centuries. Now, only one remaining family makes it for consumption during the Feast of San Francesco on May 1 when over 50 kg of the delicacy are served to local residents, and to visitors from afar who make the journey to savour this rarest of rare treats.

So, considering that all these various types of the staple ingredient are constituted of semola di gran duro – hard durum wheat – how is it that they come in a veritable cornucopia of configurations? The reason is that each is shaped in such a way – long or short, ridged or smooth, straight or spiralled, flat or round – that it is best eaten with a specific type of sauce or dressing, each differing from the other in nuance of texture and flavour.

This ever-changing kaleidoscope of contending cookery, Professor Ego concluded, was reflected in the kitchen sink drama of la politica, the politics of Italy, where no sooner had one government assumed office than a new claimant to being the flavour of the month ousted it as its best-by date had been long pasta.

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