Venice and its environs
Venice, the regional capital of the Veneto, rises from the middle of a lagoon four kilometres from dry land, two kilometres from the sea , on top of one hundred and eighteen islands, divided from one another by one hundred and sixty canals, crossed by almost four hundred bridges, one of which connects it to Marghera and Mestre.
It is a city of art that is unique, whose origins are tied to the barbaric invasions that devastated northern Italy between the Vth and VIIth centuries and, more importantly, to the pressure of the Lombards whom the Byzantines tried in vain to resist by holding on to various strongholds from Oderzo to Padua. The fall of these positions obliged the defeated survivors to seek hospitality on the islands of the lagoon. Following other assaults, at the beginning of the IXth century, the inhabitants of the islands decided to transfer the capital to the Rialto island, which was stronger and safer due to its central position. It was here that in the Xth century the urban centre was constructed, first known as Rivoalti and later as Veneciarum. The city flourished rapidly thanks to a commercial trade for which it was at the forefront : it was capable of conducting (while central and western Europe were still in a backward state of development) an intense Mediterranean trade (especially with Byzantium and the Orient ) which allowed it to monopolise a very fruitful commercial activity.
Its expansion was complex and saw a variety of events that finally concluded in the seventeen hundreds. With the treaty of Campoformio (1797), Venice was sold by Napoleon to Austria which then became its sole master. Only with the treaty of 1866 was it returned to Italy.
Venice is a city whose history has determined an absolutely unique reality, an extremely particular cultural make-up that is reflected to this day in the life of its inhabitants; still today, certain circles manage to re-evoke the pomp and ceremony of the past, especially with regard to its cuisine, which in its richest form conserves the spectacularity and opulence of former days.
In order to know and appreciate the authentic Venetian cuisine one must return to the moment of its greatest splendour; the seventeen hundreds.
In the “dolce” (‘sweet’) people of eighteenth century Venice, as one can imagine, knew how to live and the pleasures of the dining table played no small part in their way of life, in the jolly and refined spirit that merited the Republic the name of “Serenissima”(the most serene). Together with its laws, customs, techniques and language, the Serenissima definitely influenced, in the areas that it controlled or, rather, protected and revived with its form of good government, the local cuisine. And it was equally as happy, in turn, to allow itself be influenced: being both a sea-faring and commercial people, the Venetians readily understood, for example, how that certain cereal which was yellow like gold and had arrived from far across the ocean in the mid fifteen hundreds, was ideal for making polenta, substituting the chick-peas, millet and buckwheat used up until then. It was immediately adopted and its cultivation became widespread in the most fertile areas of the Republic. For the common people it became known as “turco”, or foreign, and from then on was known as “granturco” (corn/maize), becoming the basic food ingredient for the Veneto region, as indeed it still is today. The classic recipe utilises it along with “osei”(birds) and with baccalà (dried salted codfish), even though polenta is to be found almost everywhere: it is normally found in every trattoria as an accompaniment to a wide variety of dishes.
As regards “middle courses”, there are two categories of recipe that have fish as the main ingredient. With a large emphasis on the use of the entrails, and in particular liver, which when cooked “alla veneziana” (fried with lots of onion) has by now become something of a classic national dish.
Another protagonist is baccalà (dried salted cod), which in all the Veneto region almost reaches a state of perfection. Being, however, an imported food, since cod is not certainly to be found in the lagoon, the Serenissima had it imported in quite large quantities which were then distributed throughout the region and cooked in a wide variety of ways. It should be pointed out that ,despite its name, the fish itself is really stockfish, that is, cod that has been dried-out as opposed to being kept fresh by salting. The Venetians call the authentic baccalà, ”bertagnin”. For many gourmets, the highest level of preparation has been reached in Venice, and in particular by the dish “baccalà mantecato”. The preparation of this dish is a somewhat lengthy process: after the fish has been slightly cooked in boiling water, stripped of its skin, and boned, the cod is broken up into flakes that are then beaten with a wooden spoon while adding olive oil; it is then “whipped” as for a Zabaione and transformed into a light foam that is then heated in order to make it completely fluid and smooth. The best accompaniment for this triumph of baccalà is polenta. This dish is perhaps the maximum expression of one of the main characteristics of Venetian cuisine: a gentleness and delicacy with regard to flavour, and a softness and creaminess in its consistency. It is rare to come across sharp, spicy or aggressive flavours.
Which brings us to the subject of fish. The Adriatic, the lagoon, the Po “valleys” offer an immense variety of fish, crustaceans and shellfish: many in fact are cultivated within sealed enclosures in the vast estuary of the Veneto: there are eels (“bisa”), cefalo, gilthead, seabream, sea bass, sole, gobies, crabs, scallops, and the list goes on. One of the attractions of all the coastal areas is the possibility of being able to taste fresh fish: from the “mo’leche”(shore crabs in moult) to the refined “gra’ncevole” (regular crabs), from cuttle-fish to the “brodeto”(a soup made of fish taken from the Adriatic), it is all a symphony of sea-flavours .
Yet Venetian creativity is not confined just to fish that is rich and highly sought-after, but also fish which is bought by the common people, not always extremely fresh or of the highest quality. The people of the lagoon invented the “saor”, which is a sauce, a marinade made from fried onions, vinegar, spices, along with pine-nuts and raisins to soften the “strong” flavour of whatever is being marinated (or being put to “insaporire” – take on flavour - hence, “saor”), usually sardines or sole. These are old customs and uses that go all the way back to the XIVth century. The only difference is in the liquid used to preserve the saor. To obtain a lighter and more elegant “saor”, quite often white wine is used in place of vinegar. In both cases this is a traditional hors d’oeuvres dish on the Venetian menu. The only problem that arises is the difficulty in finding a wine that can oppose the acidity of the vinegar. Some restaurants suggest coupling fish in saor with a glass of chilled grappa. Even in such simple recipes, Venetians have shown themselves to be open and curious with regard to new ideas: for example, sardines cooked according to a recipe, quite probably imported by a sailor from the Aegean sea, is called “mogiu alla greca”. The fish are fried in a pan along with lemon juice and, on rare occasions, with garlic, and are then oven-cooked.
Apart from farmyard animals that are usually stuffed and cooked with a large amount of herbs, meat is not often consumed. Though one should not overlook the famous recipe for cooking Venetian style liver, and the oldest and most authentic of which is provided here. Ingredients; 500gr (1lb) of calf liver cut into strips, 500gr (1lb) of finely sliced onion, 50ml (2 fl oz)of olive oil, 15ml (1 tablespoon) of white wine, 25gr (1 oz) of butter, 50gr. (2 oz) of meat broth, salt and pepper. To prepare; in the olive oil, butter and meat broth stir in the onions, add the liver, sprinkle with wine, salt and pepper and cook
over strong heat for five minutes. Serve with very soft polenta. Variants of the same recipe include using chopped parsley with milk or cream instead of broth.
Another treasure of the Venetian kitchen comes from the vegetable-garden: vegetables are of excellent quality in all areas of the region but especially in the parts that run along the coastline between Mestre and Chioggia. The king of vegetables in the Veneto is undoubtedly the radicchio. Beautiful in aspect, seeming almost like a red-purple flower, with its lance-like leaves, crisp and of a flavour that is both intense and slightly bitter: it is served in salad or fried or roasted, and this is usually the way it is prepared when accompanying meat.
As regards “dolci” (desserts), though there not being a huge selection, the most notable are the “baicoli”, dry wafer-like biscuits, the “golosessi” (figs and apricots, dried apricots and hazelnuts dipped in caramel) as well as all the pastries deriving from Austria and which take pride of place in every pastry-shop along with cakes and the various types of apple jam which comes in many different forms and is typical of feasts in the month of November.