March 5 in Venetian history (ours)


Since I’ve been here, all sorts of dates have become staples of my annual pilgrimage through the months — dates which never had any significance for me because they didn’t have anything to do with me.  Like most dates, today excepted.

Take May 5.  No, I don’t mean Cinco di Mayo. It’s not Florence Nightingale’s birthday.  Not the first publication of Don Quixote.  Not the invention of WD-40.  All events worth observing but they don’t have much to do with Venice.

Death mask of Napoleon (Library Company of Philadelphia).

May 5, just so you know, was the Death of Napoleon.  In case this still doesn’t matter to you, your city probably wasn’t starved, raped, mutilated, and then sold into slavery. Probably.  So anyway, May 5 is, in fact, a day worth remembering, however briefly.

But, I hear you cry, this is March, not May.  I realize that.  I just wanted to say that March 5, which comes to nobody’s mind except Lino’s (and now mine), claims just as important a place in my calendrical memory.  And I wasn’t even there.

March 5, as Lino tells me every year (“Who knows why this date has remained so fixed in my mind?” he asked this morning), was the Battle of the Great Frozen Eel.

On the night between March 4 and 5, he went out in the lagoon to fish.

“There was hoarfrost in the bottom of my boat,” he starts out, to set the scene, and to point out how cold it was. March is famous for pulling tricks like that —  it snowed here day before yesterday.

Neither sleet nor snow nor fog nor gloom of night stays the letter carriers, and should the gondoliers be less than they?

He fishes for a couple of hours out in the lagoon.  “I got all kinds of great stuff,” he says (I’m freely translating).  “Seppie.  Passarini [European flounder]. And an eel.”

The fact of there being an eel isn’t so remarkable — the lagoon version has a lovely pale-green belly — but considering that he fishes with a trident, they’re pretty tricky to spear.  So this was a sort of bonus.

All the fish are tossed into a big bin.  He continues fishing.  It continues to be really cold.

Finally he rows home, lugs the bin upstairs and dumps the contents into the kitchen sink.

A view of Anguilla anguilla not doing much of anything.  In Venetian he's known as a bisato.The eel makes a clunk. It’s frozen solid in the curled-up shape it was forced to assume in the bin. “That didn’t happen to the passarini,” Lino adds,  “but the eel was hard as stone.  So I began to run tepid water on it to soften it up.”

“All of a sudden” — (I love this part, it’s like a fairy tale when the witch or prince or stolen baby appears) — “all of a sudden, I see its gills begin to move.”  He makes a slowly-moving-gills motion with his hand.

“My God!  It was still alive!”  Astonishing, if you believed, as I — and obviously Lino — would have, that freezing would kill a creature.  But the gills were definitely moving.  And shortly thereafter, the rest of the eel was also moving.  A lot.

“You should have seen what that eel was doing in the sink,” Lino goes on.  Naturally it’s slithering like crazy, trying to get out, but naturally it is failing.  And naturally Lino is trying to grab it, but it cleverly has a slippery skin to prevent that.

“Finally I took a dishtowel and grabbed it using that,” he says.  “It still wasn’t easy.  I managed to pin it down and made a couple of cuts” (in whatever part of the body was convenient).  Then, when it began to slow down, he continued with the usual procedure of dispatching and cleaning eel, which I will not describe to you.  Anybody who wants to know can write to me.

So remember March 5, sacred to the memory of the gallant eel who didn’t realize he was better off frozen hard as stone.

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Categories : Fish, History


  1. Andrew says:

    I loved that story. Did it taste good?

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thanks. I wasn’t there (unfortunately) but knowing how Lino cooks eel, I would have no doubt that it was delectable. Unless you’re thinking that perhaps eel, like other animals I’ve read about, changes its flavor if it has fought fiercely before landing in the pot/skillet/oven. With all due respect to Anguilla anguilla, I don’t think it has enough whatever-it-is to change flavor. Kind of like the Etruscans: Fight like mad, but accept defeat.

  2. Andrew says:

    Besides 5th May being the date of the demise of Napoleon ( Hooray) it’s also my birthday (Hooray).

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Well then tanti auguri a te, as they say here, and buon compleanno, too. May 5 being your birthday, you probably already knew about Napoleon, and the death of Erasmus, too, and probably also the annual observance of International Midwives’ Day, the feast day of the Blessed Panacea dei’ Muzzi (virgin and martyr), the inauguration of the first railway in Europe, the New York Stock Market crash of 1893, the arrest of John Scopes for teaching evolution, and so on. I hope you had fun, whatever you were doing.

  3. Yvonne says:

    That was a funny story to start the day. Thanks Erla, Lino and anonymous eel. 🙂
    Yvonne recently posted..Cedric gets his way again

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Well I suppose you could give him a name if you’d like to. I never thought of it. He always just seemed like the Ur-eel, but I’m probably exaggerating. Go for it.