The End of Emilia

It goes back a thousand years, Finale Emilia, and it has been a bordertown for every one of them. Today it divides the province of Modena from the province of Ferrara, and the local accent – with consonants slightly jagged and abuzz – reflects the influence of both neighbours. In centuries past, it marked the boundary between the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena, though this political iron curtain was belied by the open, sprawling landscape.
With three canals and eight bridges, Finale was emblematic first of medieval, then of Renaissance life in the Po valley. Great waterways, natural, artificial and navigable; mooring for boats and inns for riders; and people always on the lookout for a good hearty meal and a glass of wine.

Finale Emilia was always rich; more surprisingly, it nurtured a significant Jewish population, whose most delicious creations included a sort of pie made up of layers of dough and goose fat. A thousand calories in a mouthful, almost, which is exactly what you needed when pickings were slim. This dish became known as tibùia or the literal torta degli ebrei (Jewish cake), and for centuries the recipe remained a closely guarded secret. In fact, legend has it that it was a convert who eventually spilled the beans, and was duly reviled by his former co-religionists.

Later the local gentiles, inveterate friers of gnocchi, convinced the Jews of Finale Emilia to start adding lard to their tibùia. With that, it established itself as the most authentic dish of the area (the signature drink, meanwhile, would be Anicione, which is distilled from anise, not merely infused with it. But we’ll discuss that elsewhere).

We should note that, despite the profound difference in nomenclature, it was tibùia that evolved into the Finale Emilia sfogliata. This was a significant event in local history during the nineteenth century, roughly coinciding with the deviation and dyking of the river Panaro, which had hitherto coasted the centre of the town. Little trace remains of what was known at the time as a “little Venice”, but today’s via Marconi, via Trento and via Trieste follow the old course of the river. The trattorias on these streets used to look out on the waterfront; now they retain only the memory of a dried-up riverbed.