The entrée was fish, but the wine was red. Versino, head of maintenance, said that it was all a lot of nonsense, provided the wine and fish were good; he was certain that the majority of those who upheld the orthodox view could not, blindfolded, have distinguished a glass of white wine from a glass of red. Bruni, from the Nitro Department, asked whether somebody knew why fish goes with white wine: various joking remarks were made but nobody was able to answer properly. Old man Cometto added that life is full of customs whose roots can no longer be traced: the colour of sugar paper, the buttoning from different sides for men and women, the shape of a gondola’s prow, and the innumerable alimentary compatibilities and incompatibilities, of which in fact the one in question was a particular case: but in any event, why were pig’s feet obligatory with lentils, and cheese on macaroni?
I made a rapid mental review to be sure that none of those present had as yet heard it, then I started to tell the story of the onion in the boiled linseed oil. This dining room, in fact, belonged to a company of varnish manufacturers, and it is well known that boiled linseed oil has for many centuries constituted the fundamental raw material for our art. It is an ancient art and therefore noble: its most remote testimony is in Genesis 6.14, where it is told how, in conformity with a precise specification of the Almighty, Noah coated (probably with a brush) the Ark’s interior and exterior with melted pitch. But it is also a subtly fraudulent art, like that which aims at concealing the substratum by conferring on it the colour and appearance of what it is not: from this point of view it is related to cosmetics and adornment, which are equally ambiguous and almost equally ancient arts (Isaiah 3.16). Given therefore its pluri-millenial origins, it is not so strange that the trade of manufacturing varnishes retains in its crannies (despite the innumerable solicitations it nowadays receives from kindred techniques) rudiments of customs and procedures abandoned for a long time now.
So, returning to boiled linseed oil, I told my companions at table that in a prescription book published about 1942 I had found the advice to introduce into the oil, towards the end of the boiling, two slices of onion, without any comment on the purpose of this curious additive. I had spoken about it in 1949 with Signor Giacomasso Olindo, my predecessor and teacher, who was then more than seventy and had been making varnishes for fifty years, and he, smiling benevolently behind his thick white moustache, had explained to me that in actual fact, when he was young and boiled the oil personally, thermometers had not yet come into use: one judged the temperature of the batch by observing the smoke, or spitting into it, or, more efficiently, immersing a slice of onion in the oil on the point of a skewer; when the onion began to fry, the boiling was finished. Evidently, with the passing of the years, what had been a crude measuring operation had lost its significance and was transformed into a mysterious and magical practice.