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Dinner with the Neighbours

January 2009
We were privileged to be invited to dinner with our neighbours. Privileged because they are a working-class Italian family, father, mother and three children aged about 21, 18 and 12, the youngest a boy and the older two girls. Mother was to make gnocchi, and Hilary said she’d like to see how it was done – to their bemusement, as everyone knows how to make gnocchi!
First, mother made a big ball of dough from mashed potatoes and flour, getting it to a consistency where it was kind of stretchy. She then took gobbits off this and rolled them into tubes on a flour-covered board. For gnocchi, you really do need a ‘tavolino’, a large wooden board that you can coat with flour to roll the dough out on. When she’d rolled out four or five snakes of dough, each about ¾ inch diameter, she put them side-by-side and cut off sections with a knife, each section ½ to ¾ inches in length. These she dropped into a pan of boiling water, and when the gnocchi rose to the surface, they were ready to eat.
While the cooking as going on, the father of the family took me into the dining room, ie the sitting room with a large table laid, for he wanted to show me a travel magazine. Brazil, Thailand, Cuba – these places should get a good exchange rate, no? He is ‘curioso’ to see the world, which given that he will only eat pasta, is kind of a slightly painful wishful thinking, but given his financial situation, as a manual worker in a shoe factory that is suffering increasingly frequent lay-offs, and with three dependent children, is also practical wishful thinking. We looked at the brochures. He would love to go places, in principle at least.
At dinner there was Hilary and me, father and mother, their three children, and daughter number two’s boyfriend, who carries about him the to us splendid name, though to him clearly the slightly embarrassing one, of Eros. Eros’ job? He drives a cement lorry. Like all cement-lorry drivers, Eros is overweight and his stomach hangs over his belt. He is in his early twenties.
Dinner began with gnocchi in a sauce of mushrooms and sausage. Daughter number two and 12-year-old son did not eat any of this; daughter because she does not eat vegetables, and son because he is an increasingly demanding 12-year-old who gets his own way with just about everything, and he does not eat vegetables either.
Following on from gnocchi with mushrooms and sausage, came gnocchi with ragù, ie a meat sauce. Gnocchi with ragù was popular all round, both number two daughter and son were able to tuck into this. Eros, to his credit, tucked into everything.
After this second gnocchi dish came polpetti. Polpetti are Italian meatballs. And with the polpetti, some salad. Our stomachs were pretty full, as the gnocchi, especially that with ragù, came in an enormous dish, from which we were encouraged to take second, third and unlimited helpings, and which was still half full long after we were nearly completely so.
The taste, from beginning to end, was beyond criticism. Squisito.
To drink there was just one bottle of red wine. No one had more than the tiniest of glassfuls. Italian families will typically drink a small glass of red wine, then do as Eros did, and when offered some more place his hand over the glass and shake his head in the certified fashion, with an especially determined and serious look on his face. We have not perfected this yet, but have learned to be politely abstemious.
There was talk of dessert, though nothing it seemed had been planned especially, but we had brought as a small gift a packet of chocolate ginger biscuits, so we all agreed that with some coffee we should eat some of these.
‘All’ here excluded number two daughter and 12-year-old son, who would not even contemplate trying something like ginger, that they were unfamiliar with. The others did try them, and Eros in particular was most complimentary about their subtle taste, which was fair comment, we had brought them from the UK and they were of expensive quality.
I asked Eros what his hopes and expectations were for 2009, and he seemed a bit taken aback by the question, but replied that he expected that 2009 would be an exact replica of 2008. And I suppose that probably, for him, it will, as it probably will for many working people all over the world, it was inconsiderate of me, coming as I was from my privileged position of professional-class choice, to ask it.
While the dinner progressed, the typically Italian circumstances prevailed of:
a. unbroken and multitasked conversation, and
b. the large-screen television on in the corner of the room; in this room’s case quite close to the table – 12-year-old son spent the best part of the meal with his eyes glued to this.
In addition, and in case we should find the walls too bare, there was a fish tank with a number of brightly-coloured fishes swimming about looking rather agitated. Some red ones and a rather spectacular and shark-like blue-black one. The fish tank is a recent family acquisition.
It was extremely kind of the family to invite us, and somewhat difficult to know quite how we can repay such hospitality.


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