Italy's city of the lambs gives a warm welcome to British beef

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The Independent Online
With mad cow bells ringing in his ears, John Major must have been cursing his luck that yesterday's European summit had to take place in Turin.

This corner of Italy specialises in meat dishes of all kinds, but beef in particular was quite impossible to avoid. There was bresaola, a local cured beef, on the menu for the foreign ministers' lunch, and braised ox in Barolo wine on offer for the gala dinner last night.

Presumably most of this was of strictly Italian-grown stock, but at least one respectable restaurant in the centre of town was offering beef all'inglese, or, as the charmingly wonky translation had it, "English Beeff".

So concerned was the British delegation about the potentially indigestible diplomatic consequences of the local cuisine that it begged the summit's Italian hosts not to serve the offending animal at the working lunch offered to the Prime Minister and the other 14 European Union heads of government.

As luck would have it, though, this was the one meal where beef did not feature at all.

Instead, Mr Major was treated to grilled vegetables with Val d'Aosta- style asparagus gratin topping, risotto flavoured with radicchio leaf, medallions of veal alla piemontese and wild strawberries with zabaglione. The beef was all in the table talk.

Actually, to Italian ears, Turin is not the city of cows - mucche - but rather of lambs - agnelli. The Agnelli family, founders of Fiat and undisputed kings of Torinese high society, were the abiding presence at yesterday's summit. Most visible was Susanna, Italy's Foreign Minister, who gave an inimitably warm welcome to her eminent international guests (including exuberant kisses on each of Malcolm Rifkind's rosy cheeks).

The Fiat Agnellis were also there, if only in spirit. The summit took place in the disused Lingotto car factory, built by Susanna's grandfather Giovanni in the 1920s when Mussolini paid a triumphant (but now rather embarrassing) visit. Under Susanna's brother Gianni, who has just retired as Fiat chairman, the Lingotto has been converted into a giant trade fair centre covering 30,000 square metres over three floors decorated specially for the summit in the European colours red, grey and blue.

The Agnellis' industrial muscle was no doubt responsible, too, for the 30 billion lire in government grants awarded to Turin to spruce up its elegant Baroque palaces and cobbled streets.

The locals got plenty of work out of the affair, but plenty of hassle too what with cordoned off roads, wayward public transport and police sirens wailing late into the night. For the last four days the airport car park has been closed off with a sign saying "roadworks in progress"; in fact, it was just being reserved for official limousines.

One VIP who made a point of admiring the well-scrubbed city was Lamberto Dini, Italy's prime minister, who was hoping to use the summit to help launch his brand new political party today in the run-up to next month's Italian general elections. He and his glamorous wife Donatella went for a private walkabout in the centre on Thursday night, and showered compliments on a city they said looked like it was "in evening dress".

But if they were hoping for adoring crowds they were disappointed. "Several people recognised him," reported one local paper, "but traditional Torinese reserve stopped anyone from approaching him."

Yesterday was a similar public relations disappointment. Mr Dini was beaming from ear to ear as he welcomed his fellow leaders in the morning. But by mid-afternoon he had lost his voice and could scarcely croak his way through a scheduled news conference. His political nickname is already "the toad" (an unkind reference to his facial appearance). Now he could be croaking all the way to the ballot box.

An over-enthusiastic local tourist brochure once described Turin as a city "that penetrates interstellar space". The freebies on offer at the summit were equally loose with their language, especially their delightfully off-key English language. One offering was a video about Turin made for the city by a young Chinese director, Ning Ying. "I left China with these thoughts in mind: to discover a European city which cultivates in its soul a vocation for capital," she explained on the back cover. What on earth did she mean? And what impact is this city having on the soul of the EU?

Andrew Gumbel