Archive for Venetian Food
There is an old 19th-century song from Istria (the peninsula just below Trieste, which used to belong to Venice) entitled “La Mula de Parenzo.” Parenzo was the Italian name for a coastal town now known as Porec, Croatia. “Mula” is the traditional local word for a woman from Trieste, or thereabout. Yes, it means a feminine mule. Just go with it.
Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s get to the song. And the food.
I love this song, partly because it’s so jaunty, and partly because it’s the only local song I’ve learned all the way through. I’m very proud of that, considering that it has five verses, though the repetition of each phrase helps. I’ve never tried to get past the first verse of the national anthem, but I don’t think anybody has. It’s also got five verses, but they’re patriotic poetry with exotic references, which is harder to retain.
Here’s how it starts (I translate): “The mula of Parenzo/set up a shop/she sold everything/except baccala’/because (or why — same word) you don’t love me anymore.” And continues, “If the seas were sauce/and the mountains polenta/oh mamma, what soaking-up-the-sauce-with-pieces-of-polenta there would be (“che tociae“)/Polenta and baccala’/because (why) you don’t love me anymore.”
Significance quotient: zero. Musical wordage value: 100.
Here is the link, for those who do not see the clip itself here: http://youtu.be/MOWFC-tL9Ss
Polenta seems to be a useful placeholder word, at least in some old-fashioned spontaneous sayings. I’ve sometimes heard Lino say (partly joking) this elderly Venetian phrase which expresses general wonderment: “Ooooh, verze del mio ben, poenta e tocio.” (“Oh, cabbage of my beloved, polenta and sauce.”) No, it doesn’t mean anything, but it shows how useful a word polenta can be. Not to mention the food itself.
“Tocio” (TOE-cho) is Venetian for sauce (in Italian, sugo). The verb: tociar (to-CHAR). I think it must have been remodeled from “toccare,” Italian for “touch.” So therefore, working backwards, the sauce is defined as the thing that gets touched — by bread, by polenta, etc.
As for baccala’, you might be interested to know that the word in fact refers to cod that has been preserved by salting. Stockfish, or stoccafisso, is cod which has been air-dried, preferably in the bracing air of northern Norway. So the fact that Venetians call stockfish baccala’ just goes to show something. Perhaps it’s another example of their “we do things our own way” approach to life, the world, themselves, and also to fish.
Here is the fundamental thing to know about preparing stoccafisso: You have to soak it for at least three days and nights, changing the water every six hours. That in itself is not so demanding, though it does represent a commitment to this dish.
What’s really demanding is the smell. I’m not going to tell you what it’s like, although I could, because I don’t want to discourage you. Unlike andouillette, however, the odor does not presage the flavor. I don’t believe the fish was born smelling like that, so evidently drying its carcass north of the Arctic Circle inflicts some infernal change on its molecules.
Eventually the water carries away whatever effect the drying process has wrought upon this innocent fish. And the remaining flavor is worth waiting days for.
Apologies to anyone who thinks they could say the same thing about andouillete, especially my friend Michel in Nantes, who may be reading this. But they are wrong.
BACCALA’ IN TECIA (TEH-cha). Many other classic recipes for baccala’ (stoccafisso, I mean) don’t include tomatoes, but this is the humblest Venetian version and it will never betray you.
So you soak it for days. When it has become softer and moister, you remove it from the pan, and send the water to the toxic waste disposal site.
Take the fish and open it like a book, remove the central bone and assorted remaining bones, and break the fish into pieces with your hands.
Chop some onions, and saute them in some olive oil.
Add the fish, and stir.
Add peeled chopped tomatoes (we use the canned sort; if you’re a purist, feel free to use fresh tomatoes but I can’t predict the outcome).
Add a few sardines preserved in salt, which you have thoroughly rinsed.
Add a handful of capers preserved in salt, which you also have rinsed. If you use capers preserved in vinegar I decline any responsibility for the result, because they taste like they’ve been kept in a laboratory somewhere, in formaldehyde.
Salt and pepper, to taste. Do not point out the humor in the idea of having removed salt from the sardines and capers only to replace it from a box. I see it all by myself.
Simmer till the sauce is reduced and the flavor is harmonious. Don’t simmer it thinking that the fish will become more tender; it will always be chewy.
As for polenta, I won’t be there to check on you, but you should know that Lino makes the traditional variety, which requires stirring for about 40 minutes. I think the result is worth the effort, but then again, he’s the one doing the stirring.
And it has to be yellow polenta, not white. Venetians eat yellow polenta; white is favored by outliers from Pellestrina and Burano.
Trivia Alert: According to the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, “There are 30 countries on the list of buyers of this exalted commodity. At the top of the list, Italy prevails unchallenged, importing 3946 tons. It is therefore not without good reason that the Mayor of Røst says, “God bless Italian housewives and their kitchens! Long live Italian cuisine!” And God bless one Italian man, too, who actually likes changing the water every six hours and stirring the polenta into total submission.
Update from the innards of the hapless marine creatures who keep us alive.
You may recall my heartfelt ode to the fish inside the fish which will never see daylight again (either one of them). Evidently this ode is going to have to be put on a continuous loop.
Lino was cleaning some hyper-fresh seppie not long ago, and I heard the clarion call from the kitchen: “Hey, look at this.”
One seppia’s last hors d’oeuvre was a minuscule sole.
Then there was the day we bought a batch of moli, as they’re called here, otherwise known as blue whiting, or Melu’ or Micromesistius poutassou.
They’d been having a real feed, wherever they’d just been.
I suppose I’ll have to stop this now. It’s no news that smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish. It’s just that… I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they’re swallowed whole. But then again, would I expect them to be ground to paste and spread on crackers?
I have nothing positive to say about Carnival, except that it lasts a relatively short time. “Relative” is relative, though, because this year will hold the longest Carnival ever: January 26-February 12, or eighteen days, or almost three weeks. Zounds.
Of course, compared to the Old Days, it is short. Back then, Carnival could last six months. So? Lino says that if the city could make it last from January to January, they’d do it.
Actually, there is one thing which I love about it, and that thing is kids. The neighborhood tykes with their painted-on whiskers and frilly tulle princess costumes and especially their fistfuls of confetti (here called coriandoli).
Erudition alert: Why do we call them confetti and the Italians say coriandoli? Here, confetti refers to the almonds covered with a carapace of sugar, given to guests on festive occasions and colored accordingly (weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, First Communions, etc.).
In the most ancient celebratory days, it was coriander seeds which were used in sweets called confetti, presumably because they had been confected. Documents attest that at weddings or Carnival during the Renaissance, sweets (confetti) containing coriander seeds were often tossed festively at fellow revelers.
In 1875, Enrico Mangili, an enterprising engineer from Crescenzago, near Milan, decided to sell, as a substitute for real coriander-containing sweets, the tiny disks of paper left over from the perforated paper used by the silk industry. Voila’! Symbolic coriander/confetti which were cheap and, as we might say now, rigorously recycled. I can imagine with what enthusiasm the city’s pastry-makers greeted this innovation. If they were inclined to throw anything, it probably wasn’t sugared.
In any case, as you see, the two terms underwent mitosis.
So far, I haven’t seen costumes or makeup, but the Carnival spirit has already begun to simmer along via Garibaldi. Fritole and galani are already on sale, and I’ve heard the distant cries of tiny swarming humans. And they’ve left their gladsome spoor along calli and campi. There is no day so dull that it could not be brightened by these bits of colored paper.
I’ve decided that these snippets are the mystic spores from which Carnival germinates and eventually fruits, producing great harvests of masks and fritole and galani.
To which I say, throw more.
Lino is ruthless when it comes to fish. If they’re not fresh, they don’t deserve to live. Or be dead. Or anyway, be for sale.
He recognizes every symptom; as someone who has spent his life fishing in the lagoon, he knows virtually every creature, its habitat, its life story (pretty much the way he knows people), and he especially knows when the fish on sale in the Pescheria is — as they say — “tired.”
Think about it: The fish is dead, but only then does it begin to tire out. But apart from the philosophical convolutions of the point, even I can recognize fish that’s been on the ice too long. It looks worn, faded, sad; it looks like it’s been waiting in the rain at midnight for a bus that it is slowly realizing is never going to come.
So it was a happy moment at the market the other day when Lino stopped suddenly. If he had little control-panel lights they all would have been flashing “Seppie! Seppie!” And the “Seppie!” lights only flash when they are “Fresh! Fresh!”
Then a separate scary little light begins to flash: “Must Buy! Must Buy!”
So we did. A kilo of demonstrably not-tired critters came home, and Lino began what is one of his most favorite activities in the world: Cleaning fish. Catching them is the best, of course, and eating them is good, but if you want to see a happy man, you need only look at him standing at the sink sending scales flying everywhere, or at the least (as with the seppie) eviscerating them.
The best moment of all, and the reason I’m writing this little announcement, is when he pokes around to see what they’ve been eating. If there’s nothing in there, they almost certainly have been fish-farmed. They’re still fresh, but they’re not wild.
But seppie aren’t farmed, so their stomachs are a little diary of their previous few hours. I won’t list some of the ichthyological beings he has found, but the other day inspired a call from the kitchen. ”Hey, look at this!” I went to see what “this” was.
It was a baby mormora (Lithognathus mormyrus). The mormora is one of my favorite fish, and I’ve seen plenty of fingerlings of various species flitting around the shallows, so its smallness wasn’t a novelty.
But I’d never seen one of these. I felt a little sorry for it — it looked a little like it might be blinking slightly and murmuring, “Where am I? Was all that just a bad dream?”
But I never express fraternal feelings toward fish anymore around Lino. Fish were created to be eaten. If the seppia hadn’t swallowed it, something or someone else would have. You might as well feel sorry for an ear of corn.
At least I’ve been able to give the little squirt a decent memorial.