Archive for October, 2010
Last week saw the arrival of yet another signal of autumn. It wasn’t the tuffetti, my favorite ducks, though that is an important moment for me. Nor was it the first chestnuts, jujubes, and persimmons appearing in the market. (Ignore the persimmons — it’s too early. These are clearly interlopers from some hothouse.)
It’s the arrival, if you can put it this way, of the mega-ramps constructed over the bridges that stud the route of the Venice Marathon, an event which is always held on the fourth Sunday in October. (For a look at the route, see here.)
Perhaps you never thought of Venice as being suitable for a marathon (do they use water wings? Must be one of the oldest jokes around).
No, the magic word for Venice, in the world of runners, isn’t “water,” it’s “bridges.” Specifically, the 11 bridges between the mainland and the finish line way down at the Giardini not far from us. (I don’t include the Ponte della Liberta’, from the mainland to Piazzale Roma, nor the temporary pontoon bridge set up between the Salute and San Marco, because they have no steps and present no special challenge beyond their simple existence.)
I can’t tell you where Venice ranks in the world of marathons (there are 72 marathons in Italy), but thanks to the ramps it’s a great thing for everybody who isn’t a runner — who has trouble walking, or has to schlep a heavy suitcase or shopping cart or child-laden stroller or any object involving wheels, which means just about everybody. The marathon closes after six hours, but here, schlepping is forever.
October 24 will be the 25th edition of this event, so there will be a small celebratory change in the route, which for the first and only (they say) time will be detoured straight through the Piazza San Marco. It will obviously be a publicity agent’s dream. If you’re trying to get around the Piazza that morning, it may be somewhat less dream-like. But at least now you know. Make a note also that the vaporetto schedules will be deranged.
Of the 24 Venice marathons to date, seven were won by Italian men, 11 by Italian women. Since the year 2000 it has been pretty much dominated by Ethiopian or Kenyan runners. If you’re a runner, you may already have known, or surmised, this result. I see by the statistics that during these 24 years the elapsed time for the men’s race has shrunk from 2:18’44” to 2:08’13”. A similar drop has occurred among the women. (If you care, the world’s fastest marathon was four minutes shorter: Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia holds the record for his finish at the Berlin Marathon in 2008 at 2:03’59”.)
Let me repeat, for us mortals the marathon doesn’t mean glory, it means an annual drop in the Daily Fatigation Factor. Because they leave the bridges up till Carnival is over, which means almost six months of ramps.
Yes, they’re ugly. No, I don’t think it would be great to leave them up all year (at least not this version, though a design for a permanent wheel-friendly modification to some bridges was recently proposed). But when they’re gone, it takes a while to get used to doing steps again.
I know, steps are better for you. So go climb steps somewhere else. Try this: Drag your suitcase from the train station to your hotel at the end of the Strada Nova (four bridges).
And remember, to be really annoying a bridge doesn’t have to have a lot of steps. It just has to be narrow, and steep. There are 409 bridges in Venice, and as soon as you have something heavy and clumsy to carry, even just one will be too many.
I’m having a highly entertaining time these days reading “I Banditi della Repubblica Veneta” (The Bandits of the Venetian Republic) by Pompeo Molmenti, in a copy reprinted in 1898.
“Bandito” literally means “banished.” To be “bandito” was to be sent away, usually forever, dispossessed of much of your property, which had been confiscated by the State, sometimes along with all your titles of nobility, too. It sounds awful, but considering how many people were bandito you’d think it was just part of the regular cost of doing business as a havoc-wreaking, sword-wielding, virgin-despoiling nobleman. Like depreciation on your car.
Palaces razed in revenge, pitched battles in the streets, including artillery, murders of anyone deemed to be difficult– or even just a teeny tiny bit irritating — such as heirs of rival families, priests, wives, the random innocent bystander, including nursing infants — it was all part of the routine for your ordinary conscience-challenged baron and his squadrons of thugs. Some of the worst characters seem to have made a hobby of collecting decrees of their banishment.
By about page 10 it was incontrovertible that the id was on a permanent rampage across an empire awash in endorphins, a realm in which generations of men (and a couple of outlying women) were born with brains capable of forming only one thought: I want it now.
Unlike many books about the goings-on around here back in the old days, which often retell legends, folk traditions, and assorted other unconfirmed and unconfirmable events, Molmenti has filled his work with footnotes and citations. He was a scholar, and a very fine one.
In other words, he wasn’t making it up either.
So how many bandits were there? Reading Molmenti, you are forced to conclude that it was just about every male over the age of 18 months born into a noble family outside the city limits of Venice. Life in the Venetian Republic was far less organized, cool, or calm than some histories might lead us to believe. I, for one, was happily led for quite a while — till I discovered this book, in fact — to think that the Rule of Law here, as enforced by its many enforcers, had created a realm in which human nature willingly renounced its baser tendencies in order to create a Better World and Life for Everybody.
But how wrong I was about human nature, at least in Venice, could be summarized by Lino’s occasional comment: “If somebody stole something, they cut off their hand,” he says. “People went on stealing anyway.”
Every once in a while, though, something would happen that, in its own odd way, showed that laws were in fact alive and well and functioning in Venice. Here is my new favorite story (according to Molmenti). Not much blood, but I can tell you another story with plenty of plasma another time.
In 1638 a gentleman was killed, and nobody could find the murderer. The search was vast, as was the promise of 4,000 ducats to whoever found the guilty party.
After many years, a penitent presented himself to the rector of the church of San Marco, and in the secrecy of the confessional revealed himself to be the forgotten murderer.
The priest, remembering the large reward promised to whoever discovered the perpetrator, conceived a nefarious plan, and dismissing the penitent without having given him absolution due to the enormity of the sin, told him to come back another time.
After a few days, when the assassin, tormented by remorse, returned to ask for pardon, prostrate before the minister of God, the wicked priest hid the sacristan in a closet next to the confessional, able to gather all the details and circumstances of the deed and then reveal them to the State Inquisitor.
The assassin, immediately arrested and condemned to the gallows, seemed to be prepared for his punishment, but not without having expressed to the friar who was assisting him and to the prison guards his amazement that the Inquisitors knew the particulars of the crime down to the smallest detail, which he had revealed only to the rector of San Marco in the secrecy of the confessional.
His comments were reported to the Supreme Court, and his sentence was immediately suspended.
The priest was brought in, and confessed under torture his ignoble sacrilege [knowing he was going to go to hell wasn’t enough of an incentive to make him confess?], and he was beheaded.
The assassin, on the other hand, was released from prison, and seeing that the discoverer of the crime was also its perpetrator, he was given half of the reward [Caramba, not only am I alive, not only am I free, now I’ve got 2,000 ducats I didn’t have yesterday].
And he was instructed to abandon Venetian territory forever. [Watch me go.]
You looking for justice? Here it is, served up in a jumbo-size package: The assassin is identified (check), another crime is discovered (check) as well as its cassock-clad perpetrator (this is getting good). The guiltiest of the guilty walks the green mile while the formerly — well, still — guilty murderer gets a prize and goes free.
Bonus: The Venetian State saves 2,000 ducats.
Extra bonus: Pretty clever assassin, really, going to confess his crime to a priest. That way he managed to remove the sin from his cosmic account without having to suffer any unpleasant blowback from the Venetian government. True, it didn’t work out like he planned. It worked out even better.
Let me know if I’ve missed any morsel in this cassoulet of crime. It’s pretty tasty.
Today I woke up to October, and while you can’t say we’re in the depths of autumn, I’m struggling to accept that summer is no more.
It’s not that fall is so bad — in fact, it has many excellent qualities — but there is one thing about it which I object to. No, it’s not the darkness creeping ever more deeply into the edges of the day, nor the descending temperatures, nor the having to dress with all those layers of clothing that make me feel like some mongrel foot-soldier preparing for battle — brigandine, puttees, Sherden helmet, gauntlets.
No, what I object to is the annual farewell to ice cream.
I know, it doesn’t actually die, it just sort of goes into hibernation. What dies is its natural habitat, which consists of heat, sun, and fatigue. Of course I could eat ice cream at Christmas, but much as I love it, I don’t see the point.
Little-known fact: Summer was actually invented by Italian gelato-makers. Until you’ve eaten gelato in the sweltering depths of an endless July afternoon here in the cradle of the Renaissance, you haven’t tasted it in all its extraordinary glory, its divine combination of flavor, texture, and temperature. It’s the coldness that takes it over the top, far beyond fudge, and I’m convinced that people who live with air conditioning eventually lose their capacity to completely perceive the exquisiteness of the sensation of that frigidity on the tongue. You have to have reached some tertiary level of heat prostration to really appreciate it. Sorry: No suffering, no redemption. No sprinkles.
The great thing about ice cream here is that people regard it as food. More than food, something your body requires for survival in the summer the same way it requires, say, water. It’s not entertainment, it’s nutrition. Articles will appear (I love them) in which doctors and studies are cited praising its benefits to the human body. To hear them talk, you’d think you’d have to eat it even if you hated it.
“Eat gelato,” they say. “The summer weather demands it. Your body requires it. Have as much as you like, it can’t hurt you, it’s the only thing that can help. It’s crucial for everyone — babies, the bedridden, the new litter of puppies. It’s better for you than Omega-3 fish oil.” Well, they don’t say that, but if they did, I’d believe it.
Here’s an example: Somebody asked on a web forum how many calories are in a gelato that’s served in a cup. Note the clever way of putting the question so that it’s impossible to answer. But an intrepid reader didn’t hesitate: “Last week I heard a report on Tg2 [television station],” he replied, “that said that gelato has very few calories. I think they said 50 calories per cone.” No mention of how many scoops the cone contains, or even the dimensions of said cone. But 50 calories sounds about right to me.
Ice cream is a health food. You have to come to Italy to discover that fact.
One reason, among many, is its lower fat content compared with American ice cream. Another is the lavish use of fresh fruit in season. Either of those beneficial aspects can be annulled by adding whipped cream, of course. Not to mention that you can also get simple slabs of frozen cream. But your average gelato will not be the fat bomb that goes for premium prices back in the US and A.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US stipulates that to be called “ice cream,” the product must contain no less than 10 percent butterfat. The average is 12 percent. Premium ice creams in the US can contain as much as 20 percent butterfat.
Italian gelato, on the other hand, contains 7-8 percent butterfat. Funny, I don’t miss that other four to 12 percent fat at all. It only means I can eat more of it.
There are a few gelaterie around Venice which in my opinion are worth re-routing your wanderings to visit. The one in the middle of via Galuppi on Burano, the one at the foot of the iron bridge on Murano. (They don’t have names, or I’d give them to you.) The gelateria San Giorgio right here on via Garibaldi.
I realize that opinions vary. I also realize that there are cultures in which red-bean flavor is more appealing than chocolate/orange fondente. But anyone knows great gelato when they taste it.
Here’s something you may not have known: March 24 is the European Day of Ice Cream. Surely this hasn’t been instituted to jolt people into thinking of ice cream. It must have been to jolt people, such as European Parliament members, into thinking about what new laws and special ordinances they can devise to help ice cream propagate more profusely everywhere.
So who is the patron saint of ice cream makers and/or eaters? There doesn’t seem to be one, but we could construct him or her out of the following pieces: Saint Lawrence (patron saint of candy makers), St. Martha (dieticians), Saint Honorius (bakers and sweets), and St. Brigid (dairy products). Also Saint Dolley Madison.
But great ice cream seems not to depend on geography — in Italy, I mean. Not trying to award medals, but I’ve had great gelato all over the map. There was that little storefront in Torino, and Vivoli in Florence, not to mention San Crispino in Rome. One of the most dazzling frozen treats I’ve ever eaten was served at lunch at a club in Naples. It was a watermelon sorbetto, deep red and with a rich fruity flavor, studded with small chips of bittersweet dark chocolate masquerading as the seeds. Technically not gelato, but unforgettable. And cold.
I suppose the very best ever — why try to categorize? It’s ridiculous — was in a small shop run by an old man in a hillside village up behind Trapani, in Sicily. There were only a few flavors; I tried the “cassata,” but it was only a million times better than normal cassata. The flavor, the texture, the exceptionally perfect level of cold, it all came together into something I am convinced that they eat in heaven.
I’ve had celestial gelato in the usual flavors (strange, in the homeland of espresso I have yet to find a coffee ice cream that means it). And I’ve also had some of the unusual flavors: honey, rose, pomegranate, walnut and fig, pumpkin, carrot and celery (surprisingly good — think carrot cake). Also apple and ginger. Ice-cream makers, like artists anywhere, are on some kind of continual quest.
A few years ago, an Italian legislator got his name in the paper because of his complaint about the deplorable quality of the ice cream served in the Parliament cafeteria. Does this tell us more about the quality of the ice cream, or of the public servant to whom it was served? Yet complaining about inferior gelato, at least in the summer, doesn’t seem totally crazy. And you can’t expect him to be complaining about funding for public schools in August. Nobody would care.
Where in the USA do they eat the most ice cream? It isn’t Mesa, Arizona. It’s Alaska. I don’t understand that. It must be the alimentary equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. That, or each Alaskan eats 200 gallons of it between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
More minutiae: In 2007, the USA led the world in ice cream production, yet New Zealand was the country that led the world in ice cream consumption. Italy is merely sixth. More ice cream is eaten in Sweden and Finland than in Italy. There it is again: The colder the country, the colder the food? Bizarre. Unless they’re eating aquavit-flavored gelato. That could work.
So where do gelato makers go in the winter? The jungles of Costa Rica, or perhaps the Okavango Delta of Botswana? I can see them there, up in the trees, sitting on tiny eggs soon to hatch new gelato makers. Don’t laugh, there are more here every year.
I’m going to miss it, though. Prometheus brought fire to humans, but I want to meet the person who brought gelato.