By KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA
There was maintained a calibrated detachment from the humdrum world of politicking. Rather the philosophical abstract world of ideas of politics was acceptable and welcomed. Apart from playing sophisticated games, enjoying music there was the pleasure of devouring good cuisine. The culinary heritage and tradition of Piedmontese exclusive clubs is worth the legend. In these Clubs food was served with all the elegance and formality as mentioned in the memoirs of Emilio Segrè, a Physicist and Nobel Laureate, “A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segrè”, “On Friday I saw Carlo Perrier at Turin. I had lunch with him and his brother at the Philharmonic Club, in a great 18th century palace with butlers in white stockings and livery, but with average food.” The culinary items with respect to their ingredients and style of preparation and cooking is highly interesting and filled with powerful snippets of insight into history and tradition of Piedmontese region.
These ‘charming’ characteristic needs further exploration and analysis which is discussed in this second and concluding part of article on the Piedmontese nobility.
POLITICS IN THE CLUB – GENTLEMEN’S RULES:
This specific dimension of the elite Gentlemen’s clubs imbued with the ethos of aristocracy needs to be emphasized; a safe and comfortable distance from the world of politics. The society insisted on being totally apolitical and despite having members who were political heavyweights: the nobility types, diplomats, serving ministers. As a matter of fact quite recently, about 20 years back, one of the senior members had to step down due to his close affiliation with the ruling political dispensation of the day. It would be safe to state that the broader political position or temper of most of the members were liberal and moderate.
Perhaps the Indian context would be worth comparing with where the elites even the aristocratic ones are constantly yearning for political power and participation. Our elites need to ponder and reflect upon a situation or equilibrium to use an economics term whereby they can refuse government responsibilities and can exist and operate sans political patronage. What would be truly remarkable in 21st century India given the low ebb of politics to create a niche world of elites where it operates and independent of the political sphere.
A glowing instance from Whist Society is that of Cavour who on assuming the mantle of President in 1860 no longer intended to accept any government responsibilities given his disappointment with the armistice of Villafranca.
CUISINE – ARISTOCRATIC ‘AROMA’ & STYLE:
The Philharmonic Society Whist Club was reputed for its elegant, high-class dining so let’s explore some of the reputed dishes or culinary items including entrees, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.
Moncalieri Tripe, or in Trippa di Moncalieri is a traditional Piedmontese cuisine which is basically a sausage concocted from the tripe and the belly of cattle, like sheep, goats and pigs. This is procured locally from the Moncalieri rural cattle located in the province of Turin. Hence there is a distinct touch of local authenticity. I ‘macaron’ della Val Rilate is a handcrafted macaroni which happens to be a marvellous medieval tradition produced in the charming rural landscape of Montechiaro d’Asti. The process of making the macaroni involves rolling the dough around a knitting needle and the seasoning is a guarded Monferrino secret.
la finanziera is a traditional, archetypal Piedmontese dish in which beef and white meat is used for making. The name traces its origins to the dress usually worn by bankers and high-finance around 1800 who loved this culinary item. Bollito misto, a crowning glory of the traditional Piedmontese gastronomy is a variant of simple boiled meat which needs to be prepared with care, correct choice of meat portions cut, appropriate accompaniment of sauces and paired with good wine. The entree needs to be served with the right side dishes like boiled potatoes, buttered spinach, sautéed mushrooms, sweet and sour onions and a cup of broth. This dish occupied a grand place in the Italian cuisine of nobility, it is noted that around the 1800s King Vittorio Emanuele II would venture off to the small town of Moncalvo for a hunting session for wild game and then enjoy a hearty ‘convivial’ meal of Bollito with his friends. Bollito found its way into the landmark book of Italian gastronomic literature, ‘Libro de Arte Coquinaria’(The Art of Cooking) authored by Maestro Martino.
Zabajone al foie gras is a variant of the Italian dessert Zabajone served with the foie gras. Zabajone is an Italian dessert famous in the top tables of haute cuisine which was an accidental creation of the chef to Duke Carlo Emmanuele-I of Savoy. The original name was apparently Sambayon in honour of Saint Pasquale Baylon. The chef randomly poured some fortified wine into an egg custard. This soon emerged as the pudding served amongst the Piedmontese aristocratic circles and remained their favourite. The serving with foie gras add the decadent touch to a dessert steeped in tradition.
LOCAL AND ROOTEDNESS – CUISINE
If we were to now deconstruct and interpret the aristocratic influence or touch of many of these culinary servings then let’s first consider the characteristics which define or distinguish them as ‘noble’ cuisine and sets it apart from the rest. First and foremost which springs to mind is the ‘local’ rooted nature of the ingredients and recipes. Hence ‘local origins’ is very important for these culinary dishes to qualify as aristocratic. In many instances the Nobility patronized elite Gentlemen’s Clubs which inscribed the local shared identity onto their elite habitus and practices. There is a powerful lesson in this age of populist anti-globalization, anti-elitist sentiments about the importance of connecting with local culture and heritage like cuisine. Today most elites at the global stage have distanced themselves from local authentic reality of life and are basking in the suspended rarefied groundless sphere of luxury and opulence. This is most exemplified by the rise of Skyscraper tall restaurants overlooking the landscape of the city or region.
TRADITION AND HISTORY – CUISINE
Next we can locate this idea of a legacy of history associated with the great courts and families and their kitchens like for instance the dessert Zabajone arising from an accidental blunder committed by the chef in the kitchen of the Duke. This kind of ‘closeted’ history lends a certain mystique and charm to the culinary recipe and perhaps it tastes a bit romantic!! The cuisine has to have some association with history of a noble family kitchen or personal preference of the Royalty like that of the Bollito Misto favoured by the venerable King Vittorio Emanuele II. This is akin to a kind of endorsement of the cuisine and its taste by the most discerning and highest echelons.
FAMILIARITY NOT EXOTIC CUISINE
Apart from these two characteristics one which I would propose is that of familiarity like what’s served by grandmother or what one savours in the dining table for routine meals of the day. In many of the literature on these elite Gentlemen’s Clubs one finds the leitmotif or recurring theme of a familiar and homogenous environment which prompts many to define it as their ‘second home’. In the case of Circolo dell’Unione all the interviewees who happened to be members referred to the Club as their ‘second home’. For instance in most of the culinary dishes mentioned there is a sense of familiarity for the members and for instance the dish of La Finanziera which was enjoyed and relished by the bankers. This again needs to be reckoned by our contemporary global elites who revel in creating exotic esoteric ambiance of dining and entertainment. A great penchant and desire to clip and cut-off the roots of one’s existence or origins is clearly manifested and even applauded. Many commentators have derided this as the proverbial bourgeoisie 21st century exotic excursion.
In the summary one can appreciate and understand the way Piedmontese nobility went about creating a special niche for themselves in the sphere of socializing and aesthetics. Besides we learnt about a glowing instance of Continental European nobility. This demonstrates that there are multiple ways in which fading elite can retain its prestige and exude glory without craving and conniving for political power.