While everyone else is carbo-loading with frittelle and galani, Lino has taken our modest domestic feedbin in another direction: the classic-Venetian-fish-dishes direction. If you stay on that road, it won’t be long before you find yourself in the suburbs of heaven.
These specialties have no relation to Carnival — it’s mere happenstance that we’ve eaten them now, in the interval in which everything is famously permitted, including frying in lard. (Not made up; our butcher at the Rialto was selling plastic bags of white, waxy-looking rendered pig fat which makes pastry the food of the freaking gods).
Let’s proceed in non-alphabetical order. First, the schie.
Schie (SKEE-eh) (Crangon crangon) are a variety of tiny gray shrimp found in the lagoon and elsewhere. They were once a reliable standby of people who were tending toward poor, such as lagoon fishermen, or large families on small budgets, which is redundant.
Lately, though, its distant relations, or even impostors, have begun to show up in restaurants and bars.
A noticeable number of trattorias, keen to entice tourists with traditional dishes, have begun to offer what they call polenta with schie. They correctly promote it as a great Venetian specialty, and if you mention this combination to older Venetians, at least some will respond with an appreciative “Ie, ie, ie, polenta co le schie” (EE-yeh, EE-yeh, poenta co eh skee-eh). This is the kind of phrase that they must have found entertaining when they were children. It’s a tasty combination, and filling, and cheap, or at least it was once. The perfect makings of a classic.
Now that the price of schie can go up to 40 euros per kilo at the Rialto market ($27 per pound), regular people — like us — don’t buy it anymore, and tourists eating out aren’t likely to know that what purports to be polenta and schie is only an approximation of the aforementioned dish.
Nowadays what the cook usually presents as polenta is infant’s gruel, a wide soft expanse of a golden substance I think of as Cream of Polenta. Real Venetian polenta (always yellow, never white — white is what they eat in the islands, or Pellestrina, or Chioggia, or Cape Town or Vladivostok) is firm, almost solid, and is to be eaten in slabs. Or at least in hefty chunks.
As for the schie, the little shrimpy morsels strewn atop the yellow mush in the restaurants are virtually always pink shrimp, perhaps from far away, who almost certainly have broken their journey in a freezer somewhere.
But the other day, on our way home, we passed Nardo, the local fisherman, and he offered us a half-kilo bag of schie for a paltry 10 euros ($13). Lino pounced. And cooked. And then we ate.
Here is the old Venetian way of cooking (and eating) these critters, as performed by Lino, who alone, pretty much, of all his race still has the patience and desire to put in the time and effort to prepare them. Note: The time involved in preparing schie isn’t noticeably great, but the other recipes require practically a solemn vow that you’ll persevere to the end.
Put them in a saucepan, fill with cold water, and some salt.
Bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, take something made of metal — we sacrificed an old stainless steel dinner knife — and pass it through the gas flame till it’s red-hot.
When foam covers the surface of the water in the pan, turn off the gas (fire, heat) and plunge the redhot knife into the schie-laden water and swirl it around. I have yet to discover the reason for this, but just do it. It will make you feel like Siegfried wielding the Wotan sword.
Pour the cooked schie into the pasta colander to drain off the boiling water.
In a bowl, pour some extravirgin olive oil, lots of sliced garlic, some pepper, and a tiny bit of salt.
Put the drained schie in the bowl with the oil and garlic, mix thoroughly, and eat.
Aha: Eating them. You can’t be in a hurry. If you have to catch a train, forget eating schie because you have to shell every dratted little one, one by one, and it’s nothing like shelling big brawny Atlantic prawns. It’s like picking bits of white mohair fluff off your navy-blue wool peacoat. Lino seems to regard it more as entertainment than nourishment. I regard it as just another great excuse to eat oil and garlic.
The European spider crab (Maja squinado) is a regular at tables in better restaurants, mainly as a toothsome antipasto, for a fairly toothsome price. Up the street, one menu offers this delicacy for 18 euros ($25) per person.
I like crab well enough, though I can’t say that my wildest dreams are dominated by crustaceans of the class Malacostrara. Then again, I’d never turn one down.
When we discovered some bouncing bonny crabs at the Rialto for 4 euros per kilo ($2.50 per pound), it seemed ridiculous to forego a few — even more ridiculous than paying 18 euros to eat one. Especially as Lino, as noted above, regards dismantling dwellers of the abyss as one of the few genuinely amusing activities around.
It takes about an hour to tease all the edible bits out of this animal; I think it’s something like meditation for him. We’ve never gotten around to acquiring fancy tools for this work. He uses a small screwdriver. I use a pocket-size dental pick. We sit there at the table together, surrounded by chips and splinters of crabshell, peering through glasses on noses, going pickpick scrapescrape and discussing subjects more disjointed than our little spiny victims.
We divided the spoils into two parts. We ate one half of the pulp arranged artfully in its shell just as they do in the restaurants, with a little pepper, olive oil and lemon.
The other half was transformed into an exceptional pasta sauce, composed of some saute’d onion, one tiny chili pepper, some tomato sauce, and half a glass of white wine.
FRITTELLE DI BACCALA‘:
I have never seen this on any restaurant menu but it is often sold in bars as bacala’ impana’, or breaded fried baccala’. In the old days this substantial snack used to be baccala’, but considering that as the price and effort involved in preparing baccala’ is inversely proportional to the number of customers who would know what breaded baccala’ actually tastes like, the fish is often something else. Plaice is a common substitute. Hey: It’s white, it’s fish, it’s fried — what’s not to like? Nothing, unless you’re the type of person — such as your correspondent — who is also irked by men who row sandolos and offer their services by calling out “Gondola gondola,” or selling botoli and calling them castraure.
How would you know if it’s baccala’? Well, because the odds are almost 100% that it won’t be. But for the record, my experience is that the giveaway isn’t the taste, because by the time it reaches the being-fried stage, the sharpest edges of its particular flavor have been worn away, as explained below.
But you can’t fake the texture. Plaice is tender and ingratiating, a mere whiff of white fish flesh. Baccala’, no matter how much you may soak or boil it, will always retain its sturdy Arctic character: chewy, slightly resistent, giving your teeth a little work to do, even though you will swallow it knowing you couldn’t completely soften it before sending it to its fate. It’s like certain cuts of inexpensive meat: You just decide when you’ve chewed enough and down it goes.
To make any dish involving baccala’, you start with a dried, shrink-wrapped carcass. You can buy it already soaked and ready to cook, but it costs more, obviously.
I warn you that baccala’ soaking emits an alarming smell. You may be appalled, which is understandable the first time. I just don’t want you to be surprised. You can cover the pan and put it in the oven, as we do, or otherwise enclose and conceal it. Don’t worry that the fish you finally eat will smell like that; when you pour off the water, the odor disappears.
Ingredients: Baccala’, water, salt, a capacious pan, and at least three days.
Put baccala’ in capacious pan, cover with water.
Change water every 6 hours for 3 days.
Change water. add a little salt, and bring to a boil. Boil for 40 minutes.
Remove from water and set it out to cool.
When it reaches room temperature, cut it open like a book.
Remove all the bones and the skin, pull off the pulp into pieces however they come off.
HOW TO PREPARE THE FRITTELLE:
Put flour in bowl.
Place 10 grams of yeast in a glass with tepid water, mix gently.
Pour the water with yeast into the flour, mix.
Add some salt and pepper.
Put the pieces of baccala in the batter.
Cover with dishtowel and leave in a tepid environment for one hour.
Pour enough olive oil in pan for deep frying.
Heat the oil– take a toothpick and put it in the oil, and if tiny bubbles form around it, the oil is ready.
With a spoon, remove pieces of baccala from the batter (however they come; they don’t have to come out one by one).
Put in hot oil, fry till golden.
Place on paper towels to drain.
Best eaten hot, but they’re not bad the next day if you leave them out at room temperature.
If you have been farseeing and clever, you will have put aside at least some of that soaked baccala’ pulp, so now you can make another gastronomic wonder known in Venetian as bacala’ in tecia (bahk-ah-LA in TEH-cha). A tecia is a saucepan (“pentola” in Italian).
And if, for some reason, you didn’t see fit to make polenta to eat with the schie, this would be an excellent moment to stir up a cauldron. There is an instant version, but please don’t tell Lino if you decide to use it. He makes the time-honored version that requires 40 minutes of frequent stirring.
BACALA’ IN TECIA:
Take 3 sardines that have been kept in salt, rinse and bone them.
Take 10 capers that have been kept in salt, rinse.
Take the pieces of fish, in whatever size or form they may be.
In saucepan, saute’ some chopped onions in extravirgin olive oil.
Add the baccala’ to the oil and onions.
Add the boned, rinsed sardines.
Add the rinsed capers.
Add tomato sauce and water.
Slowly simmer till done. If necessary, add more water to continue simmering.
Carnival has become one of my least favorite things about Venice, because each year its negative aspects increasingly outweigh the positive.
I am referring to the Mega-Commercial-Highly-Promoted Carnival whose vortex is the Piazza San Marco. But Carnival in its small, neighborhood version continues to charm me, mainly because it almost exclusively involves children (the smaller, the better) and their doting relatives. Random frolicking. Dressing up for no reason (by which I mean, not the reason of being photographed to, for, by, or with anyone, particularly tourists). Throwing fistfuls of confetti anywhere.
I don’t need to look at the calendar to know that Carnival has, as of today, officially begun. For the past few days the signs have been unmistakable.
Here are a few:
The newspaper hasn’t reported anything further about when Mahtab Ahad Savoji’s remains will be released so that her aunt can take her home. Evidently she’s still in the morgue.
It has reported, however, that the “atypical strangulation” was caused by a forearm; the most likely scenario for this type of injury, according to the coroner, was that she would have been seized from behind and the assailant’s forearm squeezed against her neck.
Alcohol was found in her blood, though not at the extreme level described by her roommates. Her blood alcohol level was reported at “twice the legal limit,” which here would mean it was 0.10%. This level could result from her having drunk a bottle of wine, or five shots of whiskey, over the course of four hours, though if she was killed at 2:00 PM it’s unlikely she began drinking at 10:00 AM. Even though this is Italy, where some people start their engines before dawn, it doesn’t match the personality described by her family and friends.
Still, if I were living with Rajeshwar and Gagandeep, a couple of shots might have been just what I needed.
I can’t think about this anymore, so I will close with تسلیت می گویم یا تسلیت مرا بپذیرید. My condolences.
Let’s admit that “Death in Venice” is — I’m sorry to say — one of the greatest titles ever. It’s better than “Catch-22″ or “Atlas Shrugged,” and it’s probably better even than “Of Human Bondage” or “Naked Lunch.”
You can see why. If sadness and Venice appear to be destined for each other, like Victorian lovers, death and Venice seem doomed to be linked forever, thanks to a genius title that connects two of the most emotion-laden words that exist. If the book had been called “Farewell, My Lovely” — which would have been kind of cool, though it would have put Raymond Chandler in a fix — at least Venice could have escaped the “death” search term.
Enough musing. A recent tragedy has shown that there’s nothing romantic about either death or Venice, even when you put them together. And you don’t have to actually die here to benefit from the Venetian element. It’s enough to be discovered to be dead here for the whole affair to seem even worse than it is. Whatever that means.
Here’s what happened. And I warn you that the tragic element, which is real, will play a relatively small part in a story which is made up of idiocy of a magnitude to dwarf even the ten most idiotic things that have ever happened here.
At about 1:40 AM on January 28, a water-taxi driver went home to the Lido and was tying up his boat at its usual place in the canal that flanks via Antonio Loredan. It was dark, obviously, and this street isn’t especially well-lighted. But he saw something floating in the water.
The “something” was the body of a woman, who was clad only in a single necklace.
But the necklace wasn’t the important clue.
It was the fact that a young Indian couple in Milan had reported her missing.
That turned out to be a huge technicolor clue, because they were the ones who killed her. This is the first indication of the level of intelligence at work here (idiocy, as mentioned). If I had murdered someone, I don’t think I’d feel like trotting over to the police to say, “She’s disappeared and I don’t know anything about it” if, in fact, I knew all about it. I’d feel like getting on a plane back to India, which is what exactly what they’d had in mind, but they didn’t do it fast enough.
Her name was Mahtab Ahad Savoji, and she was a 31-year-old Iranian student who had gone to Milan two years ago to study art. She moved into an apartment at #5 via Pericle with Rajeshwar Singh (29), a hotel night porter, and his girlfriend, Gagandeep Kaur (30), a chambermaid.
Life was not tranquil. Contrary to her supposition of sharing the apartment with only Gagandeep, she found herself living with her boyfriend too. The place was so small that Mahtab slept on a cot next to the sofabed where the couple had no second thoughts about getting it on whenever they felt like it. She told her friends that Rajeshwar had begun hitting on her, that Gagandeep wanted to involve her in a menage. Strife escalated.
Fed up, Mahtab packed her bag and told them she was moving out. Then she asked to be reimbursed for her part of the security deposit. As far as I can tell, this is when things went south, possibly aggravated by their feelings of rejection regarding the missed menage. In any case, they killed her.
It was 2:00 PM on January 27. The autopsy revealed that she died of “atypical strangulation,” which has yet to be further elucidated. However, her demise was not caused by a cord, as Gagandeep claimed, nor was it caused by drinking herself to death, as Rajeshwar maintained.
It’s now about 2:30 and the two Indians have a dead body they need to get rid of. They strip her, fold her up, and put her in a big rolling suitcase. Then they head to Lecco, a town 31 miles (50 km) away. The plan was to dump her body in beautiful Lake Como, but they decided against it because “there were too many people around.”
People? The town has 47,760 inhabitants, plus tourists, and it was still daylight, too. Sharp.
So they dragged the big suitcase back to Milan (presumably by train — it’s less than an hour from Lecco), and took a train for Venice.
Why? you ask. Why Venice? The Po River is much closer to Milan than Venice, and I doubt that they were impelled by the well-known romantic connection between the Queen of the Seas and the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.
They went to Venice simply because Rajeshwar had worked in a hotel on the Lido for a brief period, so apparently it came to his mind that all that water would be just the place to leave her remains. Or some sort of reasoning like that. If he had worked in a hotel in Geneva, maybe he’d have lugged the girl’s corpse to Geneva.
They got off the vaporetto at 8:04 PM under a pounding rain; the video surveillance cameras filmed two people pulling a big suitcase. They walked a third of a mile (595 meters) to the first canal to the left, and found a nice dark spot to unburden themselves of their naked former friend.
The pair left the Lido at 9:56 PM (I can’t understand how it took them two hours to accomplish their task, but the video doesn’t lie). But when they got to the station, it was past 11:00 PM, and the last train for Milan was gone. So too was the now-empty suitcase.
Undismayed, they walked over the Calatrava Bridge and asked a taxi driver how much he’d charge to drive them to Milan, because they had to be at work the next day. (First rule of escape: Be as inconspicuous as possible.) (Second rule: Evaluate seriously how important it is to show up on time for work, when you are shortly going to be sought by the police.)
The driver said 650 euros, they said fine, and off they went. The video cameras at Piazzale Roma filmed this also.
At 2:30 AM they were back in Milan. And by now the body had surfaced.
It didn’t take the police all that long to find their way to via Pericle to ask the couple a few questions about their former roommate, thanks to their having reported her missing. At which point they began to just throw remarks every which way, like Eddie Izzard on lying: “I was on the moon. With Steve.”
First, they told the police that they’d gone out for a walk at 10:30 on the day of her disappearance, and when they returned at 6:00 PM, she wasn’t there.
Then they said that they had awakened suddenly at 8:00 AM to find her naked and dead lying on the sofabed next to him; they assumed she had drunk herself to death the night before. (So then they went out for a walk?)
The autopsy hasn’t found any evidence of this yet. On the contrary — the Indians stated that Mahtab had been eating potato chips and chickpeas with her bottomless bottle of whiskey, forgetting that the autopsy would easily reveal what she had really consumed. For the record, it was rice and vegetables, her lunch on the day of her death.
Then Rajeshwar said they hadn’t killed her, they’d only disposed of her body. (Don’t try to make sense of this. “Our friend is inexplicably dead! Gosh, let’s take her clothes off, haul her body to Venice and throw her in the lagoon so nobody thinks we did it.”)
Then Gagandeep said “Rajeshwar killed her with a cord which he threw away.” Then she said, “No, he didn’t kill her, I killed her.”
Then the police found that Rajeshwar had booked a direct flight to India for February 2, and that 5,500 euros were stashed in the sofabed.
Just think; Instead of going all the way back to Milan, they could have gotten on a plane at Marco Polo airport at 6:20 AM and been somewhere in India by 11:40 that night. I’m all for showing up for work, but I think they got their priorities slightly scrambled.
So Rajeshwar and Gagandeep are in jail in Milan, and Mahtab is in the morgue in Venice. Her aunt has come to identify her remains, and when the coroner has clarified all the remaining unclear points in the attempt to establish the definite cause of death, Mahtab will go back to Teheran.
And Rajeshwar and Gagandeep will be going back and forth from their cells to the court for quite a while.
And the good people of the Lido can go back to thinking of how to induce tourists to come to the beach and the golf course. God knows nobody wants the Golden Isle to start being known for a new kind of tourism.