Archive for October, 2013
I wanted to title this post “My Name is Red,” even though doing so would have meant stealing it from Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. I was happy to exploit him because his novel of that name is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read. Anybody who can start a story with “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well,” has my vote.
Back to red. For some reason I notice it early and often. I have no theory as to why; maybe it’s that red has been throwing itself in front of my face. It is, after all, one of the more assertive colors in the spectrum.
Venice and red have a long and glorious coexistence, and I do not refer to the torrents of hemoglobin spilled in its incessant wars. (Speaking of bloodshed, did you know that arterial blood is bright red, while venous blood is a dark maroon? If anyone wants to know my source, it isn’t Johns Hopkins Hospital — it’s “13 Ways to Make Fake Blood.”)
No, the marriage of Venice and red takes us back to the Great Days, when Venice’s claim to fame was supported, among other things, by a number of exceptional products: glass, of course, and there was teriaca, a three-weird-sisters preparation believed to cure everything you can name, and many that you can’t even imagine.
And then there was the sumptuous color known as “Venetian red,” first documented in 1753, though I assume it had already been in use for a number of centuries.
“The skilled dyers of Venice, in particular, were known for their ability to create gorgeous red dyes,” writes Amy Butler Greenfield in her book, “A Perfect Red.”
“The deepest and most resplendent reds,” she goes on, “collectively known throughout Europe as ‘Venetian scarlet,’ were the envy of all who saw them. Throughout Europe, dyers tried to imitate these reds without success, perhaps because no one thought to add arsenic, an ingredient used by the Venetians to heighten the brilliancy of their dyes.” Perhaps the arsenic supply was being diverted to other uses.
Like any trade secret upon which fortunes were built, Venetian dyers did everything to conceal their recipe, to the point of inventing macabre tales of specters haunting the dyeworks, to keep the curious at bay. (I would have thought the stench alone would have been enough of a deterrent. But what I call “stench” was clearly the ravishing odor of money.)
Although I did find a recipe for Venetian red dye, I’m not going to share it, partly because it’s pretty complicated and not something you should consider trying in your kitchen, and partly because I’m convinced that whatever result you obtain wouldn’t truly match the refulgence of the original.
Then there were the Venetian painters, who also found a way to make red their own. Even on canvas, “Venetian Red is a pure iron oxide with real wow factor,” as Matisse Professional Artist Acrylics and Mediums puts it in its catalogue.
“It gets its name because the natural iron oxide deposits inland from Venice were this color which was midway between the deeper violet iron oxides found near Pozzuoli and the common red oxides found elsewhere,” Matisse continues. “The Venetian painters used this color with flair and particularly as a result of Titian’s usage of it, it became a famous color throughout Italy…This same shade of red oxide is found in the stone age cave paintings in France and when discovered they were clearly as vibrant as the day they were painted 16,000 years earlier…”
I would continue this treatise but feel my mind wandering away into foggy byways of minutiae. And anyway, maybe you don’t care about red, even though eight seconds of research reveals that it represents just about everything in human existence: fire and blood; energy and primal life forces; desire, sexual passion, pleasure, domination, aggression, and thirst for action; love, anger, warning or death; confidence, courage, and vitality.
I forgot to add danger, sacrifice, beauty, national socialism, socialism, communism, and in China and many other cultures, happiness.
Also hatred and sin.
If you have any urges left over, you can distribute them among the greys and fawns, or devote them to cornflower, saffron, or Mughal green. I’m taking the high road.
Seeing that by now I have drilled into everyone’s brain the fact that the Regata Storica is an event that has been held over the past several centuries, it’s fair to say that many of its attributes could be regarded as traditions.
Tradition, as I have drilled, etc., is a word intended to connote The Way We’ve Always Done It. But a closer look at many traditions demonstrates clearly, even to those in the back of the room, that they can be changed, eventually to become the new Old Traditions.
Take the pig.
For about the last hundred years, if not more, the traditional prize to the pair of men finishing fourth in the Regata Storica on the gondolinos was a live piglet. I have not yet begun the search for the reason for this, so just accept the fact that along with a blue pennant and some money, the pair got a young Sus scrofa domestica.
And they weren’t merely presented with the little swine at the end of the race. Before the race even formed up, the creature was put into a crate, placed on a boat, and exhibited up and down the Grand Canal.
By 2002 the animal rights organizations finally overcame this tradition, having claimed for years that the practice was cruel and inhumane. I saw the parade of the pig once, and it didn’t look so degrading to me. He was a lot more comfortable than anyone on the #1 vaporetto on a Sunday afternoon, and nobody in the animal rights organizations cares about them.
Returning to the subject of the fourth-place prize: Either people lived closer to the earth back then, 0r there were fewer scruples running around unsupervised, so a live pig seemed like a fine thing. The idea was not to divide it, like the baby brought before Solomon, but to send it to the country somewhere to be fattened and cossetted and tended until it was time for it to achieve its true destiny: Sausage. Soppressa. Pork chops, Pork roast, and so on.
There is a hoary old joke about this undertaking, which can be altered according to whichever town or place you want to insult. The person who told it to me was insulting Pellestrina, and it was made funnier by his imitation of the distinctive local accent. To Venetians, this way of speaking implies something rustic (to put it politely) and uncouth (to be frank). It implies individuals who would not consider pig-fattening to be anything out of the ordinary.
So: Two men from Pellestrina enter the Regata Storica, finish fourth, and get the pig. They are being interviewed by the national reporter, who asks them what they plan to do with it.
“I’m going to take it home,” says one.
“Take it home?” says the reporter. “Do you have a pigsty?”
“So where will you keep it?”
“Oh, I’ll keep it in the kitchen,” the racer replies.
“The kitchen!” blurts the reporter. “But what about the smell?”
“Oh,” the racer says, “he’ll get used to it.”
What would be a good substitute for a live pig? I hear you ask.
A pig made of Murano glass. And it doesn’t have to be fed or slaughtered, or shared out in perfectly equal halves, because they make two of them.
Now we come to the real point of the story. A few weeks ago, the very enterprising and high-spirited members of the Settimari rowing club decided to add something else to the prize line-up. They dispensed with the annoyance of raising and killing a pig, and got right to the point of it all, which in Venice translates as Food.
They planned a big dinner in their small clubhouse, invited Martino Vianello and Andrea Bertoldini, who had finished fourth this year, and uncrated two gigantic roasted whole pigs, ordered from somewhere in Umbria where the art of roasting pigs has reached the sublime.
If you’re a vegetarian and still reading (unlikely, I admit), you might want to stop now.
We spent several hours gorging on one, and the other was given to the pair, who didn’t anticipate any trouble at all in dividing and consuming it. Just like the old days, but better.
Because, as Andrea Bertoldini explained it to me, a live pig was really a problem. He’s been racing for at least 20 years, and has finished fourth in other editions of the Regata, so he has had first-hand experience of what being awarded a baby pig really means.
It’s not just taking care of it for months (you generally give it to somebody who’s already got the sties and the feed and the mud and all). It’s that you start to become attached to it, like Fern Arable; you feel sorry for it, and so everything gets derailed in the Natural Order of Things.
So Andrea was perfectly fine with dispensing with the tradition and moving on to something new, and easier to handle.
Better yet, he and Martino were each awarded a plaque which proclaimed them to be a “Principe del Porchetto” (Prince of Roast Pork). This was not only original, and cleverer than the old joke, but a play on the term “Re del Remo” (King of the Oar), which is given to the couple which wins the Regata Storica five years in a row.
Andrea and Martino have finished fourth in various years, but this the second year in a row they did it, and so the title of “prince” implied that if they were to come in fourth for the next three Regatas, they could be called King of Roast Pork.
Maybe you had to be there.
In any case, you’d have loved it. You never had to look into the creature’s soulful eyes, and you got as much as you wanted of the tender, herb-infused meat encased in dark greasy skin that was insanely crunchy. If you were to shut your mind about what you were eating, it wouldn’t have been because the animal inspired pity. It would be because you refused to think about what the food was going to do to your arteries.
If those two really do become Kings of Roast Pork, they’re going to have to spit-roast an entire herd of swine to supply the celebration. I’ve already got my plate and fork and cholesterol medicine ready.
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.
I’ve freely indulged myself in remarking on garbage which is left where it happened to fall. Or drift. Or be blown. Or put.
The computer terminal was just one item. Bags and bags of rubble and assorted refuse of every sort are others.
The other morning, a TV joined the throng.
Same place as the terminal.
Same stupid time (I saw it Sunday morning — but maybe it came to rest on Saturday night.) But what difference does it make? It’s out of somebody’s house now, and that’s all that matters.
Did you know there’s a number you can call, and the trash-collectors will come pick up any item measuring up to 3 cubic feet for free?
But I admit that calling a number is much more burdensome than hauling it outside under cover of darkness and leaving it there. It’s certainly less entertaining.
There must be something about this corner that literally drags people and their garbage to it and compels them to leave it there, even against their will. Flee from this baneful point! Mark it on your maps and nautical charts: 45 degrees 25 minutes 57.306 seconds latitude, 12 degrees 21 minutes 23.457 seconds longitude!
Does my Mystic Force theory sound crazy? So does somebody deciding to do this, and going home feeling fine.
I’m watching for what appliance could be next. A hydraulic olive-oil press? An incubator? A cyclotron?
Heigh-ho, as they don’t say in Venetian.
Bonus: The orphan battery, the Flying Dutchman of batteries, rejected, abandoned, and doomed to sit on the street for all eternity. (That’s longer than just some eternity.) Everybody must know it’s there by now, and everybody ignores it, even the garbage collectors, for obvious reasons.
The only recognition it receives is to be shifted from time to time, by the all-powerful occult hand, which belongs to nobody. It goes farther down the side street, then it’s put out on the main street by the corner, where everybody can see it. Then it goes back down the side street.
Before long, I’m going to make it my mascot. Give it a little sweater and hat in my team colors. And pompoms. Then I’ll give it a name, but I haven’t decided what yet. I’m not even sure if it’s a girl or a boy.