Returning to Cosa Bolle, you may have heard that the Italian government collapsed last night, thanks to a vote of no confidence in the Senate. This wasn't a surprise, and indeed the real miracle in some ways is that Romano Prodi and his government managed to hang on as long as they did with a 3 (I think) seat majority in the Senate.
What will happen now? In theory, new elections, but with the current electoral law, which was passed by the previous government, the outcome could be just as close again, leaving the country almost impossible to govern. The problem is, from what I understand, that whereas in the House the winning coalition automatically gets a set of bonus seats that serve to strengthen the majority, in the Senate it does not. Couple this with a system that allows tiny parties to form and send just a handful of deputies, and maybe one or two senators to Parliament, and you have a recipe for disaster, because all it takes is one little party not getting its wish and stamping its feet, and the whole thing collapses.
This time the foot-stompers were of a party called UDEUR, one of the formations that rose from the ashes of the old Christian Democrats, led by a guy named Clemente Mastella (the Minister of Justice before the scandal brewed up), who was on the one hand upset by the way left-leaning students and professors of La Sapienza, one of Europe's oldest universities, led protests that resulted in the Pope's deciding to back out of an invitation to speak at the opening of the academic year, and on the other because his wife, who is a high-ranking politician in Campania, was arrested along with quite a few of her colleagues for influence peddling.
Incidentally, the first professor to object to Papa Benedetto's going to speak at the opening of La Sapienza has since said he was dismayed by the way others took his message and turned it to suit their needs, some erecting anticlerical barricades and holding sitins, and others wailing about preventive censorship and the insult paid to the Pope. "I don't have anything against the Pope's coming to talk," he said, "but thought that if he came for the inauguration of the Academic Year, his presence would completely overshadow the event. So that's what I said." The sad thing is, he's probably right. Had Benedetto gone, everyone would have focused on him, not the University.
ISTAT: Times Are Tough
The only other thing one can say about the collapse of the government is that it came at a singularly bad time. According to a recent survey by ISTAT, the Government's statistics bureau, half of all Italian families make do with less than 1900 Euros per month (though the Euro is worth more than the Dollar, in terms of purchasing power this is about 1900 Dollars), and 15% -- one out of seven -- run out of cash before payday, while close to 30% say they would be unable to meet an unexpected expense of 600 Euros, say if the car breaks down. Those who run out of cash resort to letting bills slide for a few days (9%), turning off the thermostat (10%), and even fasting (4%) to weather the drought. As you might expect, poverty is not evenly distributed; on average southern families earn 30% less than northern families, and in the south wealth is less evenly distributed.
Education also plays an important role in determining earning capacity; the average Italian family with college graduate breadwinners earns close to 3200 Euros per month, while 50% of the families whose breadwinner began working at the end of the scuola dell'obbligo (reqired schooling, which now includes some high school, though it hasn't always) make do with 1200 or fewer Euros a month. Surviving on 1200 Euros per month is not easy (gasoline, to name one commodity, is about 1.40 Euros/liter, or 8 Dollars/gallon), and because of this in most lower-income families both parents work, while many also depend upon the pensions of the Elder Generation.
And how do people survive? By going into debt; though Italians were once known for being a nation of savers, now 56% are paying for something, or perhaps a number of things, in installments. Mortgages and cars naturally come to mind, but now most everything is sold "a rate" too, from vacations to TV sets, and if you flip through the just about any advertising flyer, especially those from electronics shops, you'll be amazed at the number of things you can take home, and begin to pay for in 6 months or more.
While it is true that wages haven't kept pace with inflation in the recent past, especially in the past couple of years, there are other forces at work as well. Paola Zanuttini, of La Repubblica, took a look at prices considered as a percentage of wages over the past 30 years and came up with some very interesting results. In 1975 the average factory wage for an operio di terzo livello (an experienced worker) was 248,000 Lire (about 415 dollars), and a tank of gas cost 15,000 lire, or about 6% of the monthly wage. Now, with the average factory wage 1121 Euros for an operaio di terzo livello, a tank of gas costs 65 Euros, or about 5.7% of the monthly wage.
Ms. Zanuttini found similar cost-as-percentage-of-wages over the years for a great many things, including records and movies. She also found some declines, for example the cost of a month's supply of pasta, which went from .98% to .25%, and some increases, in particular of cars -- a compact then cost 3 months of salary, and an equivalent model now costs 7 -- and houses, which have skyrocketed.
So why are people now having a harder time than in the past? She thinks, and I think she's right, that people's expectations have changed. 30 years ago most families had one TV set. Now many have one in every room, a satellite hookup, and a computer too, together with an ADSL account. And several cell phones, at least one per person above age 10. Everyone goes to the gym; they didn't 30 years ago. People now buy children's clothes that fit, rather than getting coats long enough to last for 2-3 years, and come the new season buy again both to insure the proper fit and the correct style.
Bottom line, in 1975 there wasn't much money, nor much to buy. Now the money is still tight, but much more stuff is available, and that's when the installments begin.
Winding down, a reader recently asked me for a recipe for crumiri, a classic crescent-shaped cookie from the Monferrato region in Piemonte, made with a combination of flour and finely ground corn meal. To make a batch you'll need:
- 2 cups (200 g) finely ground corn meal
- 1 3/4 cups (175 g) unbleached all purpose flour
- 1/2 pound (220 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature (it should be soft), broken into bits
- 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
- 3 eggs
- A packet of vanillin or a teaspoon of vanilla extract
Sift the flour onto your work surface with the corn meal. Add the sugar and the vanillin (if you're using vanilla extract add it with the eggs), scoop a well into the mound, and crack the eggs into it. Work everything together quickly, using the tips of your fingers.
Add the butter and continue kneading the dough energetically, until it is smooth, homogenous, and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball, put it in a floured bowl, cover it, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
Come time to make the crumiri, preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C).
Take the dough and shape it into a considerable number of snakes the diameter of your little finger and about 4 inches (10 cm) long. Use a fork to flatten them so they are about half as thick as they are wide; the fork will leave longitudinal ridges that are quite distinctive. Next, bend the flattened ropes into the crumiro's characteristic open parenthesis ( shape, and put them on a cookie sheet lined with a piece of oven parchment.
Bake the crumiri for about 20 minutes. Cool them on a rack, and they're ready.
A couple of observations:
- If the cornmeal is too coarse the texture of the crumiri will suffer.
- The word crumiro also means strike breaker, i.e. scab.
This time's proverb is from Lucania:
I pariend so' cum lu stuwal: cchiù so stritt' e cchiù t' fann mal.
Relatives are like boots: The tighter (closer) they are, the more they hurt.
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com
PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find recent ones at Cosa Bolle.Com, http://www.cosabolle.com, and older ones at http://italianfood.about.com/blbol.htm.