Howard Jacobson: Remembrance of panforte past

A word about Mantovan cuisine in general: until you get the hang of it, it can disappoint. It is rural and austere, much like the city itself – farm and fortress food

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Just back from the Mantova Literary Festival," I wrote in this column three years ago, "in love, as you'd expect, with all things Italian." And here I am, just back for the second time, and every bit as smitten as I was in 2008. Italians aren't much smitten with themselves at the moment, citing the humiliation of having a womanising clown for a prime minister as the main reason. But I'm not sure that we should see any damning reflection of ourselves in our political leaders. It's said that we get the politicians we deserve, but use every man after his desert, as Hamlet remarks, and who should escape whipping?

Besides, when I fly back from Verona, I see that the airport is named after one of its native sons, the poet Catullus, which to my mind more than compensates for the passing shame of Berlusconi. Blake and Keats were born in London but there's no airport in their honour. No Wordsworth railway station in Cockermouth. No Coleridge tram stop in Ottery St Mary. Not even a Trans-Pennine Brontë Bus Line. Give or take a few blue plaques, ours isn't a country that commemorates its writers.

There's a Dante Square in Mantova anyway, and a couple of statues of Virgil who was born nearby and who famously tells Dante all about the place in the Inferno. So Mantova is just the spot for a literary chinwag. Hot, fervid, associational, passionately attended, serious. If there are any celebrities here pushing books they didn't write – or worse, books they did – they are well concealed.

Mantova calls itself a literary festival and literary it is. That Chris Mullin, politician and currently a judge of the Man Booker Prize, would think it didn't, in that case, "zip along" – zipping along, should you not know what I'm talking about, being one of Chris Mullin's declared criteria when it comes to judging a novel – I don't doubt. But in fact the Festivaletteratura zips along just fine.

Of the libels to which literature is increasingly subject, the most unforgivable is the assumption that it must, whenever it is seriously accomplished, be dull. Let's get this said once and for all: great books are more entertaining (along with much else) than bad ones, and any definition of "readable" that implies otherwise is a definition not of reading but of time wasting and torpor.

Back in Mantova, where the life of the intellect is not derided, my stay is marred by only one thing – having to stop myself gorging on torta sbrisolona, a local delicacy served almost automatically after every meal, and sold, wrapped and ready to take back to England in one's luggage, by almost every food and gift shop in the town.

Torta sbrisolona is what it sounds like – the verb sbriciolare means to crumble, but could also mean to have trouble getting your tongue around – and is made by mixing butter, almonds and several kinds of flour until you get a biscuity cake that resembles solid sawdust. A better way of describing it would be as apple or rhubarb crumble without the apple or the rhubarb. As someone who has loved fruit crumbles from childhood, only wishing I didn't have to eat the fruit, torta sbrisolona could be said to be the delicacy I have been waiting for all my life, like pie crust without the pie, or lamb fat without the lamb.

A word about Mantovan cuisine in general: until you get the hang of it, it can disappoint. It is not as immediately seductive as Roman or Neapolitan food. It is not sensually Mediterranean. It is not red. It is rural and austere, much like the city itself – farm and fortress food. It makes the best of hard times. Thus, donkey stew and grey, dryish risottos made with river fish whose names tell you all you need to know about them – pike, carp, tench. Fish, you feel, which have never known the sun on their backs.

So if your taste is a lobster tagliatelle with chilli and tomato, you're in the wrong place. Whether this is true or not I don't know, but I am told that no genuine Mantovan cook would ever look at a tomato. It feels true, anyway, no matter that a waiter will reluctantly bring you a tomato if you insist on one. Tomato is not the spirit of the place.

Torta sbrisolona is the spirit of the place and I cannot get enough of it. But I feel bound to ask myself, as I grab broken-off pieces from everybody else's plates (no one being as mad on it as I am), how much it is the cake I love and how much the association? But what is the association?

Tarts with towns – could it be? There is something magical to me about a cake that is consecrated to a place. Siena cake, for example, that delicious nutty and peppery panforte which looks like a discus dusted in icing sugar and is to Siena what sbrisolona is to Mantova: both a delicacy and a souvenir. Buy panforte from a branch of Carluccio's on a wet day in London and you will be transported immediately to Tuscany.

Then there are Chorley cakes, to get away from Italy, and Eccles cakes, and Pontefract cakes (which are in fact liquorice sweets), and Bakewell pudding, which knocks the socks off Bakewell tart – though I happen to like that too –and which I first ate in the middle of Bakewell itself on the day of the Bakewell show, having been taken there by my father to help him on his market stall, circa 1954.

So is that it? Is the association of a childhood and family sort? Do I crunch into a torta sbrisolona in Mantova and remember my poor father who, prior to being a market man, worked as an upholsterer and came home with tacks in his mouth, smelling of Rexine and sawdust?

Yes, that is it. "Suddenly," as Proust has it, "the memory returns." Amid the ruin of things, smells and tastes waiting and hoping for their moment, bearing "in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection". What better place to sink one's teeth into a Proustian, memory-laden biscuit, and savour all that recollected sadness, always waiting at the edges of one's life, than a literary festival?



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