Apr
13

On beyond Easter

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In my last communique, Easter was tapping on the windows asking to be let in.

Now it has passed, leaving the usual signs — peace, joy, and crumbs.  I have the feeling that the crumbs are going to last the longest.

The dove traditionally represents the Holy Spirit. Its edible version contains candied peel but no raisins, for which I find no Biblical explanation, but it works just fine. Naturally it would be best if it were all crust.

There are crumbs of a colomba, the Easter dove, the traditional spring stand-in for the Christmas panettone, in the general form of a bird and covered with almonds and bits of pearl sugar. Crumbs of the hollow chocolate Easter egg strewn among shards of its busted hulk, crumbs of a small chocolate-covered cake in the form of a bunny, with a fragment of an ear. There is still a small bin of chocolate eggs, and another whole colomba in the form of a flower frosted in pink. But you know what? I’m sugared out.

The best thing I’ve eaten since last Sunday’s feast of roast lamb and assorted sugar-bombs was set on the table last night — bought, transported, and prepared by the indefatigable Lino.

First, we had seppie in their ink, which we’d bought just-caught from the fisherman that morning, and which had passed the afternoon simmering in their black essence.  We sploshed around in it with chunks of polenta, the old-fashioned kind Lino likes to make in his mother’s copper cauldron — it requires 40 minutes of almost constant stirring.  These two items alone would have satisfied most mortals.

Mr. Finotello senior working in the artichoke bed. Some of his plants have just begun to evince their very first flower, a "castraura." You did know that artichokes are flowers, yes?

There it is, just one per plant.

But best of all, we had something I had always heard of but never tasted: castraure (kahs-tra-OOR-eh).  These are tiny artichokes, in this case being of the violetto di Sant’ Erasmo breed, but they are more than that: They are the very first artichoke, cut from the plant in order to allow its fellow ‘chokes to prosper.

You’d be right in guessing that “castraura” has something to do with castration.  Linguistically, it does.  Physiologically, it makes no sense, but let us not dwell on the details.

My impression is that they have become something of a minor culinary myth, in the sense of being apotheosized to the point where to meet the demand (or to justify the price), there are more castraure offered in the Rialto Market than the last reported total number of pieces of the True Cross. For there to be that many castraure, even assuming most of them come from hothouses all over Italy and not simply from local fields, there could scarcely be enough land left to grow a bouquet of begonias.

This is a sight that trumpets "spring" more melodiously than even the currently rampant wisteria. Which may also be good to eat, but I prefer these.

Castraure are small, as you might expect, but so are its subsequent siblings, which are called botoli (BAW-toh-lee).  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to tell them apart, just by looking at them. If you have the chance, then, go buy them from the farmer, like Lino did.  He saw the little morsels cut from the plant just for him, so no debates about their provenance.

You can eat them grilled, or saute’d in garlic and oil, or raw, sliced paper-thin with oil and salt and vinegar.  Or raw, whole. Just make sure there isn’t any wildlife running around among the leaves. Trivia alert: Technically, they’re not leaves, and they’re not petals, either. They’re bracts. It’s a word which won’t get you very far in the kitchen, but at least now you know.

Or you can eat them breaded and fried, which is what Lino did. I’m not a huge fan of frying, since there seem to be more than 8,000 ways to do it wrong and only one way to do it right.  Also, frying seems to blunt or distort the flavor of the object fried.  But there was no bluntage last night.

Our little castraure were tender enough to eat whole, stem included, and best of all, they were bitter. It’s a purposeful flavor, stronger and more complex than the everyday artichokes I already love.  Certainly stronger than the later-blooming botoli.  If you don’t like bitter flavors, whether simple or complex, you should abandon your dream of the castraure because they will not compromise or ingratiate themselves, not even for you.

I admire that in a plant.

A few castraure. There was a crowd of confused ants concealed in the blossoms, running around saying "So this is Venice? Gosh, we thought it would be more Gothic or something."

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Categories : Venetian Food

Comments

  1. Carmen says:

    Great selection of photo. Thanks for sharing your wonderful blogs with us. Looking forward for infographic post.
    Carmen recently posted..Chamonix Mont Blanc

  2. Brooks
    Twitter: brooks.dougcomcast.net
    says:

    I have photos of my father, who was serving in Italy during WWII, boiling artichokes in his army helmet. He brought the passion for this flower home, artichokes regularly graced our table, and they still do.

    While many plan and look forward to the sites when visiting Italy, #1 on my list is making certain artichokes accompany as many meals as possible.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I’m with you. And there are also artichoke “fondi,” the flat fleshy disk between the flower and the stem. They sell those almost all the time, and that gives you the artichoke in a sort of compressed form.

  3. […] I have never seen this on any restaurant menu but it is often sold in bars as bacala’ impana’, or breaded fried baccala’. In the old days this substantial snack used to be baccala’, but considering that as the price and effort involved in preparing baccala’ is inversely proportional to the number of customers who would know what breaded baccala’ actually tastes like, the fish is often something else.  Plaice is a common substitute.  Hey: It’s white, it’s fish, it’s fried — what’s not to like?  Nothing, unless you’re the type of person — such as your correspondent — who is also irked by men who row sandolos and offer their services by calling out “Gondola gondola,” or selling botoli and calling them castraure. […]

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