The diet followed in the Veneto region is dominated by four elements: polenta (cooked cornmeal), rice, beans and baccala’ (dried salted codfish). A wide range of flavours is built upon these cornerstones, flavours which are based on the choices available in regional agricultural and zoo-technical production, and the transformation of these products. But knowing the history of this land, it is not surprising that all four of these cornerstones were imported. Cornmeal arrived in the 1500’s, imposed by the Venetian Republic in spite of the general mistrust that the farmers had for any new thing (just think that in Lombardy, the farmers could only be convinced to grow corn after the Manzonian plague of 1630 and the resulting famine). Beans arrived at the same time as corn. Rice, brought from the Arab world with the trade between the Venetians and the Orient, was cultivated in the vast planes of Roverchiara and Palù in Verona from the first half of the sixteenth century. An interesting variety of vialone nano rice (unpolished nano rice) with the protection of the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) guarantee is still produced there. The crops are nourished with spring water, and the typical production zone, all around the municipality of Isola della Scala, is also made up of the territories of approximately twenty other municipalities. The reasons why vialone nano rice from Veneto is so special are many, according to the experts. They include the alkaline soil, the spring waters which come from the subsoil of calcareous rocks, the fact that the crops are rotated, a practice which reduces to a minimum the intervention of man, from the use of chemical substances to defend against plantations, to the use of chemically treated manures. The quality of this rice has brought about the creation of approximately forty different rice-based dishes. The most famous are “risi e bisi” (rice and fresh peas) and “risi e figadini” (rice with chicken livers). These are not dry, rice dishes but thick soups, the first typically a spring dish with its use of fresh peas, the second using chicken livers. The types of risotto are numerous: with fish, with “rovinassi” (remains of the chicken after the separation of the breast and thigh), with Lamon beans, with “bruscandoli” (springtime wild hops), and with snails. “Risi in cavroman” is a very interesting Levantine dish in which the rice is cooked in a meat sauce made with mutton flavoured with cinnamon and cloves.
Last but not least is baccalà - dried, salted codfish - (which is also known as “stoccafisso” or stockfish) which actually arrived later and which descended from the seas of the North. Surrounding this basic food there is a rich assortment of products which the ability of man has placed at the disposition of housewives and cooks, such as many types of salamis and hams, from “sopressa” (cured pork shoulder) to “sanguinaccio” (a type of black pudding). Even more numerous and important are the cheeses, the Latteria, the Monte Veronese, the Montasio, and others still more rare or unique. Also important are the fresh vegetables, the most important of which is radicchio (red- or purple-leaf chicory) which is used in its various forms in many dishes, amongst which is the famous “risotto al radicchio trevigiano” (risotto with Treviso radicchio) and “radicchio in forno” (baked radicchio).
Largely surpassed by polenta, pasta in Veneto found only one typically local form of expression in “bigoli” (thick, wholemeal pasta), which is a rustic and rough example of thick spaghetti obtained with a great deal of difficulty on a hand-operated press. It is still made this way by some country families. Men are usually involved in the work since it requires a great deal of strength. Today many artisan workshops produce bigoli every day with machines. Bigoli can also be found in manufactured packages, dried, but traditionally they are used fresh, as soon as they come out of the bronze plate of the press.
The golden past of Venice and the power of the Venetian Republic are told in the cuisine and in the products rich in the use of spices. If we look at the typical recipes of the seven provinces of the region, we find the presence not only of pepper but also of cinnamon, cloves, raisins from Corinth, and other products. The Venetians, great transporters of spices, did not only trade them but also adopted them into their cuisine and, in part, spread them throughout the region.
Characteristic of true Venetian cuisine is the variety in its dishes and the different origins of the ingredients. Nothing could be more natural in a city which, born in the waters of its lagoon, maintained strong ties with the hinterland, not to mention the commercial exchanges which the Venetian merchants entertained with the most various and far away countries, from Northern Europe to the Far East. Herein, therefore, lies the arrival of baccalà, along the Baltic route, the precious spices from the caravans from Asia and also, more modestly, the fresh vegetables from the estuary islands, the fish from the waters of the lagoon and the game meats hunted on the banks.
In fact, as the diplomacy of the Venetian Republic turned to the Near East, the cuisine of Venice could not remain free from Eastern influences. The holds of the merchant ships which ploughed the Mediterranean overflowing with spices brought to Venice not only riches but the spectacular air imprinted on every action (just think of the profusion of gold used in the Church of San Marco) but also new tastes which stood out for their exoticism.
If in the rest of Europe spices were often used to preserve foods rather than to modify their flavour, Venetian cuisine gathered some culinary principles from the Near East, making them their own and creating new dishes. One such case is “saor” (sweet and sour) which is an example of the balance between sweet, sour and savoury.
“Sarde or Sardelle in Saor” (Sweet and Sour Sardines) is a dish which best represents this combination. The fried fish is gently laid down in a bed of onions enhanced by the sour flavour of vinegar and mixed with the sweet flavour of pine nuts and raisins. This ancient recipe, elaborate but not difficult, allowed the cooked fish to be preserved for several days, not a small thing in times when canned foods and refrigeration did not exist. Sardines were, and are still, among the most popular and widely used types of fish, and it is true that their preparation “in saor” is found today in popular cuisine and on the greatest tables.
A dish this historic had an illustrious forerunner, “cisame di pesse” where “cisame” means a sweet and sour sauce already found in the Libro Per Cuoco (Book for Cooks), a recipe book from the 1300’s by Anonimo Veneziano, who wrote the following recipe. “Take the fish and fry it. Take onions, chop them finely and fry them well. Take vinegar, water and almonds and mix them together with raisins, strong spices and a small amount of honey. Boil all the ingredients together and place the fish on top.” Honey, almonds and strong spices, meaning cloves, cinnamon and coriander, were all used in the 1600’s and were slowly but surely disappearing in the succeeding centuries. This is true so much so that in the 1700’s Carlo Goldoni, a great witness to popular daily life in Venice, in his comedy Le donne de Casa Soa gives a recipe for “sarde in saor” which is almost exactly the same as that eaten today. “Wilt in abundant olive oil some finely chopped onions, equal to the half the weight of fish (one kilogram [2 lbs 2 oz]). When the onions have softened and have taken on a blond colour, add half a litre (2 ¼ cups) of dry white wine, 40 grams (1 ½ oz) of pinoli (pine nuts), 40 grams (1 ½ oz) of raisins from Corinth. The raisins can be found at a well-furnished grocer’s, and are less sweet than regular raisins, look like black berries and should be softened in wine for several minutes. Arrange a layer of breaded and fried ‘sardele’ (sardines) in a terracotta bowl and cover with the ‘saor’, building in layers. The sardines prepared in this way should be preserved in a cool place and eaten after one or two days, when the taste will be at its best.”
Returning to Anonimo Veneziano, his book is an inexhaustible source of recipes which demonstrate the oriental flavour which dominated Venetian cuisine, characterised by great elaboration and sumptuousness, a richness missing from the cooking of the hinterland which remained poorer and tied to only a few types of food.
Remember, only as an example of one of the Venetian glories, the aspic gelatine for which Anonimo gives us the recipe, both for meat and for fish.
“Gelatine of mixed meat.” “If you want to make good gelatine of mixed meat: from wild pig, take the ears and feet and every part, and capons, and grey partridge, and thrushes, and hares and roebuck and pheasant. Take these things and put them on the heat in part water and part vinegar. When it boils and has been well skimmed, add spices and pepper and cinnamon and ginger, and saffron crushed separately, so that it cooks as long as the meat. Whichever meat is cooked first, remove it from the pot and if the ears or feet remain, these are pieces without much substance and little flavour. When all of the meat has been removed, sprinkle it with spices and remove the gelatine from the fire and allow it to rest. Take the saffron and spread it with the gelatine, and place the meat in a bowl lined with bay leaves and put the gelatine on top and set the gelatine and saffron. When it has set over the meat, take sweet spices and spread them with this same gelatine, throw it on top, and it should be colourful and vermilion. Before it boils, add as much salt as is needed, and it will be a good and beautiful gelatine.”
“Gelatine of fish.” “To make fish gelatine for twelve people, take three large tench, strong and sweet spices together, and a half quart of saffron per person. Take the well-washed fish and let it rest for a short time, then boil it in part water and part fine vinegar. When it is boiling, the first things you add are the above-mentioned spices and saffron, and everything, and allow it to boil gently. When it is cooked, remove it and place it to cool. Have ready some bay leaves, washed and ground with the above spices, and take the fish and place it in a bowl and allow the gelatine to rest. Some boil the saffron, some don’t. When the gelatine has cooled a bit, place it over the fish, add a lot of spices, and it is ready.”
To continue the history of culinary publications, remember Maestro Martino who, in the first decades of the 15th century, was the personal chef to the “Most Reverend Monsignor Camorlengo and Patriarch of Aquileia.” He is the author of the Libro de Arte Coquinaria (Book of Culinary Art) a book in which there are many recipes with ground ‘mostarda’, a type of mustard which even today characterises much of the cuisine of Veneto. This differentiates it from the cuisine of Cremona, which is better known because it has spread over the borders to other places. Let’s cite the “Mostarda da Portar in Pezi Cabalcando” (Mustard to be carried in pieces while riding). “Take the mustard and grind it as described above, and take the well-crushed raisins. With these things, add cinnamon and some cloves. Make small balls with the mixture, or square pieces of whatever size seems right and pleasing to you. Place them to dry on a table and once dry you can carry them with you from place to place. When you want to use them you can dissolve them with a small amount of verjuice or vinegar or cooked wine.” In the 1500’s meats, especially large birds such as pheasants and even more often splendidly feathered peacocks, found their way to the tables of the Venetians and also of the Lords of some cities in the hinterland (just think that the Venetians called their Treviso territory “Marca Gioiosa”). Let’s look at a recipe from Maestro Martino, by his word suitable for both kinds of bird. “To make dressed peacocks that seem alive.” “To make dressed peacocks that seem alive, first you must kill the peacock with a hammer, hitting it on the head or removing the blood from its throat as with a kid. Then slit its body, that is from the neck to the tail, cutting only the skin, and skin it carefully so as not to break the plumage or the skin. When it has been completely skinned, turn the skin inside out. Cut off the head, which is still attached to the skin of the neck and make sure that the legs remain attached to the skin of the thighs. Dress it well and roast it, stuffing it with good things and good spices. Take whole cloves and insert them into the breast and place it in with the spices and allow it to cook dry. Place a damp cloth around the neck so that the fire doesn’t dry it too much, and continually wet this cloth. When it is cooked, take it out and dress it in its skin. Have ready an iron device on a cutting board which passed through the feet and legs of the peacock without being seen, so that the peacock remains on its feet with a head that seems alive. Arrange the tail well so that it forms a fan. If you want fire to come out of its beak, take a quarter ounce of camphor with a little bit of cotton around it, and place it in the mouth of the peacock and put also a small amount of brandy or good wine. When you want to bring it to the table, set fire to the cotton and it will spit fire for a good amount of time. For even more magnificence, when the peacock is cooked, it can be gilded with beaten gold leaves, and the skin placed over these gold leaves, which must be in some way covered with good spices inside. This can also be done with pheasant, goose and other birds, or capon or poultry.”
The use of “Oca in Onto”, literally “goose in grease”, has survived. Venetian families used this as a way to preserve nutritious meat and fat for the winter. It is used today in some families and traditional shops. The goose is placed in a covered container with a base of oil, sprigs of rosemary, cloves of garlic, salt and pepper. It is cooked slowly so that as much fat as possible comes out of the goose. When the meat of the animal is soft enough, it is taken out, the skin eliminated and the bird de-boned. The breast and thighs are then cut into pieces. In a terra cotta oil jar (the cooking pot of long ago), today easily replaced with a practical glass pot, a layer of goose grease is spread, and as soon as it has coagulated, the pieces of goose meat and some bay leaves are added. The container is filled in this manner until all the grease and meat have been arranged. The last layer should obviously be grease, covered with bay leaves and olive oil. The goose prepared in this way can be preserved for several months. The only caution is, as it is consumed, to make sure that what remains is always covered with a layer of grease.
References to the refined cuisine of Venice are also found among the recipes in the Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, probably from a Venetian family, chef to various cardinals and to Pope Pius V.
It is about sauces and ‘mostarde’ (mustards) that can be traced to oriental preparations rich in spices which are used even to cook fish, as can be verified in the recipe “To Cook Pieces of Sturgeon.” “Take ten pounds of sturgeon cut crosswise into pieces, which should not be higher than one finger (so that they cook quickly and remain tender). Leave the pieces one on top of the other for an hour, after first dusting them with pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and salt. Lay them out in a cake pan of copper or iron, in which a pound and a half of sweet olive oil or butter has been placed. Place with it a small amount of wine must, a cup of vinegar, a cup of verjuice, a pound and a half of well washed dried prunes, and a pound of raisins. Cook it in the way a cake is baked, with heat above and below, or in the oven. Cooked, it is eaten with the mixture over it. Sometimes in place of oil or butter, lard can be used with the same pieces and pieces of pork loin can be stewed with the same ingredients as above.”
In this historical digression we cannot forget the very famous Francesco Leonardi, author of L’Apicio Moderno which, in comparison to other treatises of the second half of the eighteenth century, is structured in the form of a real gastronomic encyclopaedia. In the first part of this work, organised into six parts, the recipe for “Zuppa di Riso alla Veneziana” (Venetian Style Rice Soup) can be found, rice being a food adopted by the Venetians from the Turks, and which the Venetians then imposed on all of their domain.
A successful dish from Venetian cuisine, but we can also say from the cuisine of Veneto, is the famous liver and onions, for which Leonardi offered us the following recipe. “Venetian Style Beef Liver.” “Cut four or five onions into pieces, sauté them in a pan with a piece of butter and a small amount of oil, and allow to cook slowly without taking on colour. Take a beef liver, remove the skin and nerves, cut into thin slices and shortly before serving add the slices to the pan with the onions over high heat. Add some chopped parsley and allow to cook until it is done, stirring it often. Serve slightly degreased, and with plenty of lemon juice.”
In the book La Nuova Cucina Economica (The New Economic Cuisine) by the Roman Vincenzo Agnoletti, published in 1814, there is a curious recipe for “Ale all Chiozzotta”. It is a recipe of indisputable frugality and also very elaborate, testimony to the way in which spices entered into the cuisine of even the poorest of this land.
“Prepare some turkey wings without de-boning them. Prepare, and allow to cool, a marinade made of a piece of butter, a small amount of flour, half a cup of vinegar, a small amount of water or broth, salt, a small amount of ground pepper, half a clove of garlic, two cloves, a slice of onion, a piece of carrot, a little bit of bay leaf, parsley, a slice of orange zest and a small amount of basil. Place the wings to marinate in the mixture for four hours, dry them after with a clean cloth, dip them in beaten egg white then in flour, fry them in lard and serve them surrounded by dried parsley.”
Agnoletti supplied the recipe for “Budini all Veneziana” (Venetian Style Black Pudding), also rich with spices.
Remember, also from Agnoletti’s book, the recipe for “Zalletti alla Veneziana”, typical cakes still very widespread, even though the origin of the term “zalletti” is still under discussion. It might come from “gialetti” (yellow) for their colour, which comes from the use of corn meal, or “galletti” (young rooster) from the shape they are often given.
“Zalletti alla Veneziana.” “Mix together three pounds of wheat flour with a pound and a half of well sifted fine corn meal. Form a hole in the middle and add a cake of yeast with as much tepid water as needed. After ten hours, add another three pounds of wheat flour, another pound and a half of corn meal, approximately half an ounce of salt, two pounds of fresh butter, a pinch of anise seed, a small amount of chopped citron or orange rind, and three pounds of well cleaned and washed raisins. Make a workable and rather soft dough with tepid water, and then form into large, flattened rods about the length of a finger. Place them in a tepid stove. When they have risen properly, brush them with beaten egg and allow them to bake in the oven until they have taken on colour then, if you like, glaze them with caramelised sugar, allow the glaze to dry and serve hot on a napkin. If you use two and a half pounds of sugar instead of two pounds, they will be better still.”
A dish which, more than any other, may be considered the “unifier” of the cuisine of Venice and the cuisine of Veneto is Baccalà (dried, salted cod fish). Actually it is the “stoccafisso” (another term for baccalà which means ‘fish staff’ because it is cod fish dried with a lot of salt for preservation), originating in the North of Europe, imported as trading merchandise in the spice trade, which found a welcome and a particular penetration in this region. It is still a constant presence today, everywhere in the region, all year round widely served mixed with polenta: it is made into a delicate and tasty cream that the people of Veneto eat with cocktails, as a starter, as a first course or a main course. It is a food which has not left the confines of the region but which appears at the gala dinners (for which there are many occasions in Venice) and every day, even on the simplest of tables.
Remember also the famous “Baccala’ alla Vicentina” (Vicenza Style Salted Cod Fish) which “el ga da pipar” (must cook) for approximately two hours. The recipe for this dish has many variations today, variations which gastronomic experts discuss at length: whether or not milk should be one of the ingredients, or celery, or potatoes, etc., etc. What is certain is that Vicenza Style Salted Cod Fish served with polenta, in any of its variations, is a tasty dish.
Among the desserts, let us remember “Golosessi”, which can be found throughout the year even if they are traditionally typical of Carnival time. These are simple wooden skewers on to which dried figs, dried apricots, half walnuts and other things are strung. They are then dipped in caramelised sugar and allow to dry and chill. They are an ancient version of the modern lollypop, for which no precise origin is known. It should nevertheless be observed that this same preparation is regularly used in the city markets of China. It might be thought that it was a memory told by Marco Polo and immediately captured by Venetian pastry chefs.
While the “pandoro” (“golden bread” Christmas cake) is typically from Verona and made for Christmas, it is very difficult to make at home, so much so that only pastry chefs, and of course factories, are able to make it properly. It must be high, soft, very light and dusted with powdered sugar.
There is an ancient tradition in the cuisine of Verona to celebrate Carnival, which is that of ‘venerdì grasso’ (“Fat Friday”, literally. ‘Shrove Friday’ is maybe a better equivalent), celebrated with this princely dish of common Veronese cuisine. “Venerdi’ gnocolar” is a festival which has taken place since the 1500’s as a remembrance of the distribution of free flour, cheese and wine in the San Zeno quarter after a famine. During the festival the townspeople elect the king of Carnival, with a big, fake belly full of “gnocchi” (dumplings) and a fork as a sceptre. After the parade of float cars, the gnocchi are distributed to all present. These are “Gnocci di San Zeno” (Saint Zeno’s Dumplings) according to the recipe of the families of the San Zeno area, but available in the food shops of the city. The dough is traditional: starchy potatoes, flour, eggs and salt. The pieces of pasta should be rolled over a grater so that they have “i so brufoli a fior de pansa” (with pockmarks all over their stomachs), then boiled in salted water. The traditional sauce is made from melted butter and cheese, but the real dish for the festival requires a sauce made from “pastissada de caval”, the intense stew of horsemeat that is a symbol of Veronese cuisine.
A dish which uses two of the four basic foods of the cuisine of Veneto is “polenta fasoa’” (polenta and beans), a typical dish from Padua. It is prepared by cooking corn meal together with soup made from beans enriched with lard. When thickened, it is cut into slices and grilled over coals, and is used as an ideal side-dish for grilled pork chops. In Padua it is a dish eaten “for devotion” to the deceased. A similar form of this dish is called “pendalon” (hanging) in the country, since in the past it was the breakfast of farmers who would throw their jackets over their shoulders as they left the house in the morning to got to work in the fields. The end of one of the sleeves was knotted and the packet of food was inserted. From this custom came the popular saying “he carries his food hanging”.
Local specialities tied to festivals can be found all over Veneto but, remember, all over the region the four basic foods of this cuisine (aside from Venice which, with its rich cuisine, is the exception to this rule) remain the same: polenta, rice, beans and salted cod fish, to which we can add potatoes and vegetables. One cuisine, that of Veneto, has preserved many traditions also because it has remained deeply rooted in the region, which is not true of many other Italian dishes (just think of the Neapolitan pizza which is common all over the world). These dishes must be tasted locally and therefore they have maintained an exceptional authenticity which is to be appreciated more and more.