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Author Tom Benjamin talks about famine in food city – BOLOGNA and Covid

6th April 2021


famine in food cityIn the second instalment of his Bologna-set mystery series, The Hunting Season, author Tom Benjamin has his British sleuth following the trail of a missing truffle expert through the city’s restaurants. Here he describes the real impact a year of lockdown has had on Italy’s ‘City of Food’. Famine in Food City.

Bologna is bleeding, although our butcher seems to be doing well enough. A year after the beginning of the crisis, the restaurants that had increasingly come to define Italy’s Città del Cibo, ‘City of Food’, are counting the cost of Covid. Quite how many will have survived twelve months of forced closures, take away services, and social distancing, is anyone’s guess. There are few that are not ‘on the brink’ as one restaurateur confided to me.

For Bologna, the crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time – the past decade has seen a noticeable change in the city centre, with traditional businesses being replaced by trendy eateries keen to cash in on the Comune’s effort’s to brand Bologna ‘City of Food’ – to be fair, not solely a gimmick. The city’s culinary tradition stretches back to medieval times when inspectors would raid restaurants to check the food was of an acceptable standard – back then, as now, part of Bologna’s ‘pull’ as a university city was the renown of its cuisine.

Over the years of course, industry, business, and politics came to define the city. The importance of her restaurants – and their status – waned, but since the mid-Noughties, Bologna’s centre-left administration has been promoting tourism and its financial benefits, something the former communist leaders of the city eschewed: they famously chose to fight gentrification and maintain a population in the city centre, thereby avoiding the ‘Disneyfication’ that befell places like Florence and Venice.

But under Mayor Virginio Merola, the city’s historic heart was put on a tourist-footing. Previously free-to-access gems began to charge for entrance, bloggers and journalists were invited on junkets, AirB&B exploded, pricing students and young families out, and of course trendy restaurants riding the ‘City of Food’ wave began springing up. I heard one Bolognese joke all this occurred after Merola went to visit his colleague in Florence and, mobbed by tourists and trinket sellers and apparently oblivious to the lack of actual Florentines, asked the mayor – ‘Tell me: how did you achieve this?’

This battle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Bologna is the theme of my debut novel A Quiet Death In Italy (the title has a double meaning, although apparently only to me!) but to be fair to Mayor Merola, I have no doubt about his good intentions.

famine in food city

(Photo: A near-empty Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, on a Friday afternoon when it would usually be bustling. Note the uneven marble cladding on the church of San Petronio – work was halted following another plague, five hundred years ago, and never recommenced.)

In reality, the Comune, like all Italian comune, is forever scratching around for money to pay for its services, especially after years of right-wing central government starved it of tax streams, so I can understand the appeal of easy money for a city Pierpaolo Pasolini described as ‘the most beautiful after Venice’. These new businesses created work for the young and brought cash into the city. Few can honestly claim to have foreseen the coming plague, which, of course, hit this sector hardest.

The question is – what next? Sounds are being made about not relying too heavily on the fair-weather tourist Euro, and certainly the establishment of Tecnopolo, part of a European ‘data valley’ which will exist beside Emilia Romagna’s ‘packaging valley’, seems a more sustainable alternative, but with the old city centre businesses clearly gone for good, the only thing likely to replace failed restaurants will be new ones, and undoubtedly a post-Covid Comune will re-double its efforts to attract tourists.

famine in food cityOne man, however, who may not be entirely pleased to see the back of Covid is our butcher. Among the few surviving macellerie in the city centre, before lockdown he had a steady trade but over the past year the queue has become a regular fixture outside his premises, and not only due to regulations.

Those closed restaurants mean everyone is eating at home and, incidentally, many of the owners of empty AirB&Bs have rediscovered the value of first-time buyers and the student purse. So amid so much misery, the ‘quiet death’ of a way of life has been arrested, at least for now.

Tom Benjamin’s The Hunting Season is published on May 13 and available for pre-order.

Tom Benjamin

You can follow Tom on Twitter and Facebook and catch his brilliant photos of Bologna on Insta

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