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Carnival afterthoughts

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Here is a picture of the world yesterday, when frolic and carousal were the purpose of life:

1x1.trans Carnival afterthoughts

Frittelle are so last year. We wandered into a pastry shop near the Rialto and discovered “mamelukes,” which have totally overthrown every other Carnival delicacy in my world. The mamelukes, as you know, were a military caste in medieval Egypt, and flourished from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Because of southern Italy’s unfortunate first-hand experiences with Saracens, “mammalucho” has long since become a term you might use to refer to somebody who is a little slow of wit. In this case, however, the term refers to these seductive little four-inch-long bits of sweetness. I’d have bought the whole tray if I’d known how much I was going to like them.

1x1.trans Carnival afterthoughts

Where frittelle are primarily fried dough, these are primarily I don’t know what. Bits of candied fruit, obviously, but there’s a minimum of matrix. I don’t usually promote places (though I love to promote things, such as this), but you should know that these are created at the Pasticceria Targa at number 1050 on the Ruga del Ravano.  I doubt that they’ll be there before next year’s Carnival, but this will give you something to look forward to.

Lino was telling me about Carnival when he was a lad — or rather, not-Carnival.

“Who celebrated Carnival?” he asked in his characteristically rhetorical way.  “It was right after the war and nobody had anything to eat.  Everybody was just trying to survive.”

There’s another reason why there was no costumed jollification before Lent.  “The government forbade you to wear a mask,” he said.  Why?  “For fear of reprisals.  There was a lot of settling of scores from the war.” He means civilian scores, struggles between Fascists and Socialists on the home front.

“I had two uncles — I can’t remember their names right now,” he went on.  “They were really vocal Socialists, and every time the Duce came to Venice, they were put in prison.”  Ostensibly for their own protection, but more probably to keep whatever peace could be kept while company was visiting.

But prison didn’t have to be involved in these domestic conflicts.  Mussolini’s squads of paramilitary “Blackshirts” (officially known as the Voluntary Militia for National Security) were notorious for taking political dissidents and forcing them to drink large quantities of castor oil.  That experience would certainly leave a memory that would call for redress.

“And the Ponte brothers,” he went on.  “You remember Bruno Ponte, he worked at the airport with me. My older brother, who was a Socialist, told me that when the brothers went home at night, they walked backwards to their front door, holding machine guns, so nobody would shoot them in the back.”

Carnival?  You mean, let’s all dress up like Mozart and walk around the Piazza San Marco so people can take our picture? I’d say people weren’t really in the mood.

Now we have to say a word about today, Ash Wednesday.  You might be aware that it is a day of abstinence and penitence, which used to involve a number of practices, most of which no longer survive.

The major custom (apart from going to Mass and having ashes sprinkled on your head) was to abstain from eating meat today.  Only fish.  Or maybe nothing, if anybody were to feel extremely penitent.

Therefore it has long been the custom for the butcher shops to be closed on Ash Wednesday.  A cynical person might interpret that as “They might as well, if they’re not going to have any business.”  But in any case, the tradition is still observed in our little lobe of Venice and, I’m guessing/hoping, elsewhere.

Butcher shops, though, are in a steep decline, so this valuable reminder of at least one day a year when they’re not standing there ready to provide T-bone steak is probably going to disappear eventually.  After all, the supermarkets are all open and are merrily selling meat of every sort, including tripe.

1x1.trans Carnival afterthoughts

“Wednesday closed. The ashes.” So either stock up now, or go buy fish. Or pizza or hummus or tofu or whatever people eat when they want to show how independent they are.  “No meat today?  Fine.  I’ll just eat a couple of grilled scamorzas.”

I see I started with food and I’m ending with food.  Maybe this abstinence thing is beginning to affect my brain.  I mean, stomach.


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Swamped by the seppie

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1x1.trans Swamped by the seppie

The sign says they’re alive and they’re marvelous, which we’d know without a sign. This abundance is beginning to approach the appalling.

I realize that cuttlefish do not loom large on many people’s culinary must-eat lists.  Nor, if you’re a sport fisherman, on your must-catch list.

Excuse me if I bring them up again, because contrary to any impression I may have given that I’m obsessed with them, I’m not, no matter how many times they undulate their way into my blog. They’re always here for a reason.  And the reason just now is because of their quantity this season, which is exceptional.

The plethora of seppie this spring is approaching the level of annoying. (Think of the brooms-with-buckets multiplying exponentially  in Fantasia‘s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  The situation here would be brooms-with-buckets-sloshing-with-seppie, more and more, on and on.) That’s what it looks like to me.

My delight — and I think Lino’s, too — in seeing (A) dazzling fresh seppie in the fish market and (B) dazzlingly low prices has been fading for a while now due to the sheer quantity of the tentacly treasures.  Something that once was a special treat has become a freaking fardel, a burden, practically a punishment. It’s become something like finding ourselves overwhelmed every day for weeks and weeks with Almas caviar, Wagyu beef, Swedish moose cheese, all floating on a high tide of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982.  Even all that would lose its appeal. We’d start dreaming of scrambled eggs. The seppie are proof of it.

First, we bought them, and we were happy in our simple pleasure.  Then the indefatigable fisherman upstairs gave us a bag.  And we rejoiced.  Then he gave us another bag, and we smiled.  Then Lino went to the rowing club and discovered buckets of the critters just removed from the fishing net; several people urged him to help himself, but he said, “No, but thanks just the same.”

1x1.trans Swamped by the seppie

I came home one afternoon and I could see by the ink by the front door that another gift of seppie had been bestowed on us. That was back in March, when such a sight still made me smile.

Now the phone rings, and it’s his son.  The nets that he and his friends put out by the fondamenta where he works have yielded up another major haul, and he says he’s got a bag ready just as soon as we can come by.  What could Lino say? Of course he said “Great, I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”  (I’d have preferred hearing him ask, “You don’t happen to have a kilo of Alba truffles, by any chance?” But that would have been so rude. And pointless.)

We put the last batch in the freezer, for Lord’s sake, something we never do because you can’t freeze the ink.  Only God knows how we’re going to eat all this.  Sandwiches.  Hash.  Croquettes.  Casserole surprise.  Parfait.

Lino says the next time he hears our neighbor’s boat returning, he (Lino) is going to close the shutters and turn out all the lights.  But I think we’d start hearing strange knocks on the door, and  look out to find a herd of seppie on the steps waving their tentacles and saying “What’s wrong with us?  You loved our parents.  Let us in!  Throw us in the pot!  Hurl us onto the griddle!  Send us to Valhalla with the seppie warrior-maidens!”

There are two sayings here, which mean the same thing:  “Piove sempre sul bagnato” (It always rains where it’s wet) and “Quando sei ubriaco tutti ti danno da bere” (When you’re drunk, everybody offers you a drink).  The seppie now need their own proverb.  I’m working on it.  It will be essentially the same idea, but squishier.

1x1.trans Swamped by the seppie

Our hardy seppie-slayer came back the other day and we paused to admire his haul. He said he’d taken 30 seppie in just 15 minutes.  It’s like the massacre of the buffalo out there.  Several in this bucket were making squishing and sucking noises which I sensed were not exclamations of esteem for his skill.


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San Martino footnote

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1x1.trans San Martino footnote

Twenty-three euros and 70 cents comes to $30. I leave it to you to decide if any saint on earth would consider that reasonable. However, the cookie has a long and honorable history, and you can’t put a price on that. At least nobody has tried, so far.

I don’t want Saint Martin’s day 2012 to be associated only with acqua alta and with the words which are being thrown about like fistfuls of gravel: “Disaster,” “Tempest,” “Catastrophe,” and so on.

There is no meteorological event which can get the upper hand of the cookie — the wonderful creation showing Saint Martin astride his horse, sometimes also with his sword upraised ready to cut his cloak in half, translated into dough, colored icing, sprinkles, and chunks of candy that cling to him and his trusty steed.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these cookies come in all sizes, and all calibers of candy, and all are spectacularly overpriced.  St. Martin would be ashamed of everybody if he could express himself.

But what’s interesting this year is the bit of history of these confections which I have learned from a leaflet attached to the overpriced cookie Lino gave me.  There’s no stopping him: It’s tradition, and if we have to spend the egg-and-butter money for a crumbly San Martino, so be it.

I had assumed that this pastry was some newfangled confection invented by modern bakers looking for a new product for which to charge too much.  But no.

Here is what the leaflet said (translated by me):

The custom of giving a San Martino made of shortcrust pastry was introduced and spread, most probably, by the pastrymakers who came from the Canton of Graubunden (Switzerland), who were present in massive numbers in Venice since the 15th century.

They had their own statutes in the scuola (guildhall) adjacent to the church of San Marcuola and near the ancient church of Santa Croce, in the homonymous sestiere, which was subsequently demolished in 1806. (Note: This would have been part of the massacre of Venetian churches, palaces, and guildhalls inflicted by Napoleon after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797.)

The archives reveal that more than 80 percent of the pastryshops were run by people from Graubunden, in whose favor the Venetian Senate issued special laws.

With the end of the Republic, due to the adverse political situation, the people of Graubunden were compelled, against their wishes, to leave the city, taking with them and diffusing in the major European cities the traditional Venetian pastry. (I’m all for local pride, but it’s interesting to note that according to this writer, the cookie came to Venice from Switzerland, but left Venice as Venetian.  If I were Swiss, I’d object to that.)

The celebration of San Martino coincided with the end of the agricultural labor of the year.  To celebrate this important moment, the Venetian patricians organized sumptuous banquets in their magnificent country villas, in which all their workers participated, and it was traditional to conclude the feast with a shortcrust pastry in the form of San Martino.

1x1.trans San Martino footnote

A contemporary illustration of the Swiss pastrymakers selling their wares. The caption reads (in Venetian): “The privilege granted to the Nation of the people of Graubunden to sell bussolai, and to have shops in any corner of the city whatsoever.” The historic sources for this information are scrupulously  noted: The Library of Samedan and San Murezzan (Upper Engadine), the Library and Archive of Chur, and the Marciana Library of Venice.



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Feeding the family

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1x1.trans Feeding the family

Ask any kid and naturally he or she is going to say that fish should be sold to buy all this.

Lino thinks I’m going deaf, but I think I still hear too much.

Example: Yesterday morning on the bus.  To be precise, the CA bus on the Lido, which I had boarded with a suitcase full of laundry, bound for the laundromat. Useless details, but I like to set the scene.

A very old lady sat down in front of me.  A young-middle-aged man sat down facing her.  They began to talk.  It wasn’t really what I think of as conversation — it was more like verbal badminton in which cliche’s are used in place of the shuttlecock.

It started with the usual sort of pleasantries (“Am I taking up too much room?” “No no, not at all,” and so forth).

Then they began to bat remarks back and forth.

“Unbelievable wind.”

“The bora.”

“Yes, the bora.”

“It will last for three days.”

“It always does.”

“Of course, now it’s cooler, which is good.”

“Yes, the heat has gone on too long.”

“We need rain, though.”

“Yes, the drought is bad now.  I was at Jesolo yesterday and there were incredible sandstorms on the beach.”

“Still, what can you do?”

“The weather does what it wants.”

(How true.)

(Are you still with me?)

I must have drifted off for a minute because I lost the thread, if there was one.  In any case, they left the weather and moved on to the History of Large Families.  Perhaps there was a link somewhere. It might have been Weather in the Old Days. People here love to talk about the way it used to be, in their lives or the life of somebody else. The further back, the better, because then your listener can’t contradict you.

I checked back in at the point where the man was talking.  “My grandfather had ten children,” he said..  (So we’re far back in the Olden Times when life was hard but people were honest and we were all better off when we were worse off.  I’ve heard this so many times.)

“He used to go out fishing,” the man continued.  So far, so normal.  Lots of men did this to keep the family alive. “Then he’d take his catch and sell it, and buy steaks.”

He did what? I’m no genius of domestic economy, but even with only two kids this isn’t a scenario I’d ever have come up with.  You take fish, which are free and are hugely nutritious, and you sell them — I’m good so far — and then you buy steak?  Does the word “shoes” not come to mind?  Books? The electric bill?  I’d even accept “wine”  before we got to steak.

Then I had to get off the bus with my dirty clothes, so I’ll never know what the old lady’s response was.  Maybe everybody did that back in the old days.  You were taught to sell fish for beef right after you learned how to knit a new heel onto an old wool sock, or shine the copper polenta pot using lemon and salt.

The world may be crazy now, but it doesn’t appear to have been much saner back then, either, no matter how honest and hardworking the people might have been.

1x1.trans Feeding the family

Any parent knows that kids should be eating this, not steak. And certainly not fish.

1x1.trans Feeding the family

Or perhaps the father hoped to come home with something resembling the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes” (James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 19th century)….

1x1.trans Feeding the family

…while imagining them as a herd of stampeding buffalo in Nebraska (William Henry Jackson, 19th century).

1x1.trans Feeding the family
Categories : Food, Venetian History
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