I’m aware that a month has passed since my last post — I plead the Summer Defense. Heat, mental depletion, and lots of stuff to do with the energy I don’t have.
Did I ever mention that we have no air conditioning in our hovel? Our first, second, and only line of defense is the lagoon, into which we have gone frequently.
Some evidence follows, just to reconnect with the outside world (my readers), even if I have no deep wisdom, or deep anything, to impart. I’ve had to give up talking about Venice itself for a while because living here is like living in freaking “Groundhog Day.” And when I begin to bore myself, it’s time for a big, big pause.
To start things off in a lively way was the unusually powerful “scirocal,” or southeast wind, which roared through Venice for a while the other day. This was a refreshing change, as long as you didn’t have to be on the water in any craft smaller than an aircraft carrier.
Case in point: Not aircraft carriers. Lino and I have found ourselves having to traverse water in this sort of weather in a boat with oars. One remembers only fragments of the experience due to the ungodly concentration such a traverse requires.
Much better — going out at dawn (5:30, for the record) at LOOOOOOW tide. There must be clams out there and we’re going to find them.
What I mean is that Lino is going to find them. He’s so good at it.
My job — for which I have hired myself — is to admire the view. By now it’s no secret that I adore the lagoon at an exceptional low tide. It’s like sneaking into somebody’s house.
Having found exactly zero clams in Place A, we rowed around to Place B, where the quest continued. I especially like this area because there’s so much variety in the sediment. Among other reasons.
The mushy green area in the center of the picture is eelgrass. When the tide is high (and it’s on its way right now) it floats like tresses.
Just pull the boat up and go exploring. Remember that the tide is going to begin rising before long, potentially floating your vehicle away.
Lino came across the first sea urchin I’ve ever seen in the lagoon (I’ve seen them on rocks). Happily, he did not discover it with his bare foot. People eat them, but it seemed pointless to take just one home, so we released it back into its habitat. Far from our bare feet.
Speaking of eating — as one does — we came across a few dauntless sea snails making a meal of a crab. Whatever birds walked by either couldn’t manage it, didn’t like it, or were driven away by the snails. And left only their footprints.
Lino went out armed with a net bag to bring home the clams. But all he was finding were “noni,” or sea snails (Bolinus brandaris). Which were doomed.
Which he displayed, briefly, on the bow, along with two Belon oysters (Ostrea edulis). The lagoon is full of them but nobody is — inexplicably — interested in them anymore. I really like them, but there again, taking only two seemed a little too apex-predator for us. So after being booked and photographed, back they went.
Ditto for this little newcomer, a type of clam called a “longone” (Tapes aureus). Not to be confused with “cape lunghe” (Solen marginatus). I’ve heard Lino mention them, but this was my first sighting. Immortalized, and returned to the primordial homeland.
Another newcomer to my album: Vongola verace (Tapes decussatus) — the shell slightly smashed by something, but still looking good. You can recognize them by the darkish (or sometimes whitish) band around the flattish outer edge of the shell (among other distinguishing traits). These are the native “caparossoli,” which are the acknowledged kings of the molluskian world, but if you don’t know what they look like you might be fooled by some other clam on the menu, presented — how may I put this? — under false pretenses.
Lots of half-buried fan mussels (Atrina fragilis) swathed in eelgrass, strewn about like Mollusk-henge.
When the water is high, you try not to row over them — you can find out too late that the water’s not quite high enough when you hear a little scrape or crunch under the boat. Not good.
Rising tide is also nice.
How can I put this? We found just about everything except clams. But we had a great time visiting the neighborhood.
Guess what? It’s simpler, and also harder, than you might think. Simpler in the sense of ingredients and procedure, and harder because, like playing a Bach fugue, you can’t just up and do it one day when the mood strikes you. And don’t think that even professionals always (or ever) reach this empyreal level. Those images above represent a literal lifetime of effort.
As it happens, though, we can leave it to him to deal with the details. Anyone who can make it to Valenza can enter this parallel universe where everything conspires to make you happy.
The following photos are not intended as a manual on how make sublime gelato (I’ve left out a few things, such as “equipment” and “expertise”) but to show the attention to detail and the quality of ingredients Andrea lavishes on his ephemeral creations. In fact, he’s always one day behind the gelato staring at you from the display case; ordering the milk and cream, making the mixture and leaving it in the pasteurizer overnight to “mature” means that what he freezes today he actually brewed up yesterday.
I wish he lived next door. Life would be so much better.
Of course he’s smiling. He’s making gelato.
Fresh whole milk goes into the pasteurizer where it will await its companions.
Followed by fresh cream. more or less 10W-40 weight. (Made up.)
Separating eggs by hand. The yolks act as an emulsifier in gelato, the whites are often destined for sorbetto.
There is the machinery, but nothing beats fingers and brain for even the simplest tasks.
Yolks beaten, into the mixture they go.
Peeling ten lemons, followed by oranges.
Fat vanilla beans from Madagascar on the right. The skinny little beans from Tahiti on the left are, despite being thin and shrivelly, the most highly prized vanilla beans on the market.
His forebears from the Zoldo Valley in the Veneto Region were the first to bring gelato down from the rich and powerful and offer it to ordinary people. These gelato-makers spent the summer in northern Europe making their simple concoctions (freezing by hand) and selling them from pushcarts like the man shown here, the grandfather of the owners of “Gelateria Zoldana” in Treviso.
The families from Zoldo also worked in gelaterie abroad. Here is the Arnoldo family working in Vienna in 1934.
The ice-cream-freezing machine was invented by Nancy Johnson in Philadelphia in the 1840s. This system, in various sizes (this is a quart) was what all gelato-makers used till mechanization came at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries.
And speaking of differences, these are two pistachio pastes from the same producer. The darker one was sent as a sample; as soon as Andrea tasted it, the old product was benched.
Sugar! Or, to be precise, sucrose! Because there are some 100 sugars he could choose from.
Carob flour, a natural stabilizer.
Here we see how it all turns out. After the mixture (with any added flavorings) is left overnight, then put into the freezer/churn, after just a little while you’ve got frozen rapture. Notice that each container has its own spatula. No rinsing one lone scoop all day long here.
The point of it all: Eager crowds craving more.
These men work in an office an hour away from Valenza, but have to come to town on business about once a week. (How too bad is that?). The man on the right has been coming to Soban since the shop opened 40 years ago. Start ’em early is the best philosophy.
This was my dinner: A pound of gelato. If five scoops seems like a lot, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even enough. Counterlockwise from left: Brachetto (a wine from Piemonte) sorbetto, zabaione, mandarino sorbetto, chocolate (from Venezuela) sorbetto, vanilla cream. My only regret: Not having bought two pounds. A big shout-out to Andrea’s brother, Stefano, who mans the helm at the shop in Alessandria — carrying on the family tradition in a big way in another town.
But all gelato is not created equal. Perhaps this image doesn’t call for any explanation. This is the gelateria from hell.
I’m giving my brain a small holiday — what the British traveling public knows so charmingly as an “away day” — and not trying to string thoughts together. Or even to have very many thoughts, frankly. Once I start, I usually discover that my brakes are unreliable.
But looking around is always a treat, to one degree or another, and Lord knows we don’t lack for material here.
Benches — not enough, but still usable — line the viale Garibaldi, the perfect spot of summer shade where people can sprawl and eat and nap. Lino calls the area the “refectory” or the “dormitory,” depending on what we see going on. We sit there too, sometimes, when we can find a bench, of which there should be more. But that’s not the real subject. Here, Exhibit A: Deterioration. All the benches are tormented by now, but this is reaching a dangerous extreme. (Note: I do not blame either eaters or nappers for this. It’s The Elements, of which we have so many.)
But wait! Has the world gone mad?
In this case, madness is not at work, but men detailed to spruce up the place, like you do before company comes. “Company” in this case I surmise is the Biennale of Architecture, which is opening just a few steps away on Saturday, May 28. They’ve also cut the grass in the small areas behind the benches. Where will it end?
And speaking of observing, did you ever notice the half-moon window over the water entrance of many palaces? That was the window of the gondolier’s apartment. If you had a palace you also had a gondola (sometimes more than one), and at least one gondolier. He had to bunk somewhere, so the space closest to the boat was the perfect spot. Lest you think they all had to be abnormally short, the floor of the apartment was sometimes below the level of the window –here you can see that the brown facing indicates how low the floor was.
Different palace, but here we get a look at how the apartment would look from the inside. It happens that this palace is being used as a nursery school. Most Venetians didn’t have plastic castles blocking the entrance to the canal.
But back to the madness. Let’s visit the fountain on the Zattere. I remember when it was built, something like 15 years ago. Its astonishing inefficiency was immediately obvious, but what’s really astonishing is that it has been left that way ever since. Perhaps you can see the curving jets of water. If not, never mind. You can certainly see the water which the jets are flinging far and wide. Obviously the force of the flow has not been diminished in order to make the jets fall into the drains at the foot of the pedestal. Or, the drains haven’t been moved. In any case, this is what you have: Sloshy ground in the summer, and sometimes ice in the winter. And waste. Bonus points to the designer for putting a drain instead of a basin — occasionally a helpful soul will put a plastic bowl or old ice-cream tub beneath the falling water so that dogs can drink too. Whenever we see anything that is somewhere between inadequate and wacko, we say it must have been designed by “the architect of the fountain at the Zattere.” And people worry about acqua alta?
Oh, sorry — are we in your way?
This is almost impossible to top. Elephants in Venice! (And people worry about tourists?). This photo is in an unidentified window on Barbaria de le Tole. Sorry about the reflection, but some sleuthing reveals that the Circo Togni came to Venice in all its glory at some date in the Fifties. I’m impressed by all the people who act like this is as normal as the Fourth of July parade in Wahoo, Nebraska. But maybe they’re thinking that Venice is as normal as Wahoo.
Here’s the link, in case the clip hasn’t come through: https://youtu.be/6MEwe6XL_ck
My “away day” is over now, leaving room for “back-here day,” which will be tomorrow.
I hadn’t thought of writing about the Vogalonga (my 20th, undertaken on Sunday, May 15); after all, the pictures tell the story just as well, or even better — what? — than I could.
For the record, there were almost 2,000 boats registered and something around 8,000 rowers. What was unusual this year was the acute increase in single (or double, but mainly single) kayaks. Not judging, just saying. If this continues, before long we will be the eccentric guests at the Kayaklonga.
Our trusty crew awaits the 9:00 AM start aboard our equally trusty six-oar caorlina. Except that there are nine of us, which means the rowers were transporting an extra 400 pounds or so around the lagoon. They’re smiling here because they don’t realize that yet. From the front, our little floating United Nations is composed of Marianna Ciarlante (from Abruzzo), Axel and Sandra (Braunschweig), Pietro and Chiara (Rome), Camilla De Maulo and Marta Compagnini (Milan). Invisible me from the USA on the bow, and seated astern, the ineffable Lino (good grief! a genuine Venetian!!)
Looking at the boats assembling is always entertaining, and the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, of the Querini rowing club is always spectacular.
There is the most wonderful energy and enthusiasm to the start. The cannon fires, all the bells start to ring, all the boats get going, and there is the amazing sound of water rushing past a world of boats.
So we were carrying our extra people, but this Sicilian tartana carried a piano and player. Reports were that he played during the whole event, but even though we were pretty close, I never heard a note. Was he playing “As Time Goes By”? “Nearer, My God, to Thee”?
Not long after the endless serpent of boats began to coast along the island of Sant’ Erasmo, there seems to have been a mass decision — lemmings with oars? — to strike out in a straight line across the shallows instead of staying in the channel that curves its way along the edge of the island. Perhaps you can make them out, on the line separating water from sky. We stayed in the channel, all by our peaceful, unhassled little selves. First of all, our boat would have probably been too heavy to make it across the shallows without ridiculous effort. Second of all, at the farthest point of Sant’Erasmo. the boats came back into the channel almost exactly in the position they held when they broke free. We certainly welcomed back a number of boats which had been beside us 35 minutes earlier.
The few pilings marking the channel at the northeast end of Sant’Erasmo are crowned by duck decoys. Evidently they mark a rest stop.
Still rowing, still happy, almost at Burano, the halfway point.
Friends of ours from Pavia.
A crew of hardy Dutch ladies who I thought, ignorantly, had escaped from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. But closer study makes it obvious that they have ingeniously modified their traditional headgear to be boatworthy.
“Burano” is Vogalongaspeak for “bananas and bottles of water or tea or other rehydrating agents thrown deftly from a barge into your boat.” I think slightly more than a ton of bananas sacrifice themselves to keep us rowing. Not all in our boat, of course. I’ll try to take a picture of the Great Banana Throw next year — I was too busy catching them to photograph them.
At Burano we finally got a glimpse of the amazing Mike O’Toole (astern) and Gary Serbeniuk of “Gondola Getaway” in Long Beach, California. Not that they rowed from California, though I have no doubt that they could have.
Down the Grand Canal., and the end is in sight. After five hours of rowing, that’s a phrase you could sing to “Take me hooooooome, country rooooooad…”.
We made it through the usually-clogjammed Canale di Cannaregio with no problem and now it’s on to the finish line.
The two best moments of the Vogalonga — if one had to choose — are the beginning and the end. Mike and Gary, conquering heroes, have made it back to the club, and they look like everybody feels when they’ve finally done it. If that sounds like an exaggeration, you may notice that the blue skies of the morning have turned grey and (you can’t see it) very windy and cold. They’re smiling also because they know that pasta with mussels awaits them. Well, maybe they didn’t actually KNOW that, but they knew there was wine somewhere very nearby. Because, you know, Italy.