Arriving in Modena to participate in a conference, I checked out the food stalls lining the road into the city centre. The chestnut season was in full swing. Chestnuts have long been a staple food in the Veneto. Chestnut porridge, a polenta-like sludge, was the food of the poor, and kept people going all through the Second World War. Nowadays, perhaps because of this, you see it much less. Italians have cherished other recipes.
On a frosty autumn morning with a real nip in the air, the scent of roasting chestnuts was irresistible. Besides these delicacies, blackened and split, the stalls were selling slices of a sweet chestnut cake called castagnaccio, chestnut fritters, candied chestnuts in jars, marrons glaces and packets of chestnut flour. People were buying the little chestnut sweeties for breakfast, eating them as they hurried along. Some ate as they cycled. Bicyclists here wobble rather than speed; the riders are too busy smoking and shouting into mobile phones to be interested in carving up pedestrians.
Still on my food hunt, I found the indoor market simply by sniffing the air like a dog. The scent of truffles drew me down a side street near the duomo. Inside an iron-pillared temple of plenty were stalls heaped with many of the largest and fattest chestnuts I have ever seen. Inquiries among the conference delegates produced various suggestions for how to cook them. Peeled chestnuts can be boiled, grilled, braised or cooked in milk for use as a garnish or vegetable with poultry and game. They can be combined with wild mushrooms, in milk or stock, to produce a delicious soup.
By the time I got to the market, having conscientiously first visited the duomo (itself an edible-looking Romanesque structure faced with white nougat-seeming marble), most of the truffles had gone. I admired the heaps of enormous porcini mushrooms, the tiny violet-tipped artichokes that you can eat raw, thinly sliced into salad, the persimmons and pomegranates, the long radicchio that look like parrot-tulips, striped red and white, and the radicchio di Castelfranco with its big, loose, pale green leaves speckled with pink.
Back at the conference, I was charmed by how our hosts interspersed the literary readings and discussion with regular breaks featuring solid snacks. No meagre Nescafe and biscuits for them, but proper espresso served with prosciutto-stuffed rolls and other savoury delicacies, a spread as generous as a good antipasto, both morning and afternoon. The little sugared buns that Italians like to eat for breakfast made their appearance here at teatime, too. (The organisers, you felt, were worried that our brains would cave in under the pressure of thinking about history and memory, the conference's main topics.) Well, it is a sweet bun that provokes memory, we told each other, tucking in to the Modenese madeleine equivalents.
For dinner, we piled into small city-centre trattorie to eat slowly, with frequent cigarette breaks, through a copious menu chosen to show off local cuisine. Small portions meant we could try everything. Over two nights, I sampled some of the best tortellini I've ever eaten (stuffed with spinach and ricotta dripping with freshness), long green pasta curls anointed with sausage ragu, tortellini in brodo, gnocco fritto (which comes all in one piece) and pasticcio bianco rosette (pasta filled with prosciutto and then baked). Tastes of piatti secondi included trotters with mashed potato, braised veal and thick slices of ham with golden cubes of fried potatoes. Puddings were chocolate cake, lemon tart and zuppa ingles, a trifle. These meals took hours, allowing for jolly conversation and much wine. I tried the local Lambrusco, a cheap version of which used to feature at student parties. It was as foul and fizzy as ever: I'd rather drink neat balsamic vinegar, the other great Modenese speciality. Afterwards, we repaired to a bar and sipped digestivi. I love amaro, black and bitter. My favourites are made from radicchio and from artichokes. Yes, both were on offer.
What a happy conference. Well fed and relaxed, how eloquently everyone discoursed. How normal the Italians thought it was to stop at lunchtime and dinner, and eat properly.