Archive for artichokes

Apr
13

On beyond Easter

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In my last communique, Easter was tapping on the windows asking to be let in.

Now it has passed, leaving the usual signs — peace, joy, and crumbs.  I have the feeling that the crumbs are going to last the longest.

The dove traditionally represents the Holy Spirit. Its edible version contains candied peel but no raisins, for which I find no Biblical explanation, but it works just fine. Naturally it would be best if it were all crust.

There are crumbs of a colomba, the Easter dove, the traditional spring stand-in for the Christmas panettone, in the general form of a bird and covered with almonds and bits of pearl sugar. Crumbs of the hollow chocolate Easter egg strewn among shards of its busted hulk, crumbs of a small chocolate-covered cake in the form of a bunny, with a fragment of an ear. There is still a small bin of chocolate eggs, and another whole colomba in the form of a flower frosted in pink. But you know what? I’m sugared out.

The best thing I’ve eaten since last Sunday’s feast of roast lamb and assorted sugar-bombs was set on the table last night — bought, transported, and prepared by the indefatigable Lino.

First, we had seppie in their ink, which we’d bought just-caught from the fisherman that morning, and which had passed the afternoon simmering in their black essence.  We sploshed around in it with chunks of polenta, the old-fashioned kind Lino likes to make in his mother’s copper cauldron — it requires 40 minutes of almost constant stirring.  These two items alone would have satisfied most mortals.

Mr. Finotello senior working in the artichoke bed. Some of his plants have just begun to evince their very first flower, a "castraura." You did know that artichokes are flowers, yes?

There it is, just one per plant.

But best of all, we had something I had always heard of but never tasted: castraure (kahs-tra-OOR-eh).  These are tiny artichokes, in this case being of the violetto di Sant’ Erasmo breed, but they are more than that: They are the very first artichoke, cut from the plant in order to allow its fellow ‘chokes to prosper.

You’d be right in guessing that “castraura” has something to do with castration.  Linguistically, it does.  Physiologically, it makes no sense, but let us not dwell on the details.

My impression is that they have become something of a minor culinary myth, in the sense of being apotheosized to the point where to meet the demand (or to justify the price), there are more castraure offered in the Rialto Market than the last reported total number of pieces of the True Cross. For there to be that many castraure, even assuming most of them come from hothouses all over Italy and not simply from local fields, there could scarcely be enough land left to grow a bouquet of begonias.

This is a sight that trumpets "spring" more melodiously than even the currently rampant wisteria. Which may also be good to eat, but I prefer these.

Castraure are small, as you might expect, but so are its subsequent siblings, which are called botoli (BAW-toh-lee).  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to tell them apart, just by looking at them. If you have the chance, then, go buy them from the farmer, like Lino did.  He saw the little morsels cut from the plant just for him, so no debates about their provenance.

You can eat them grilled, or saute’d in garlic and oil, or raw, sliced paper-thin with oil and salt and vinegar.  Or raw, whole. Just make sure there isn’t any wildlife running around among the leaves. Trivia alert: Technically, they’re not leaves, and they’re not petals, either. They’re bracts. It’s a word which won’t get you very far in the kitchen, but at least now you know.

Or you can eat them breaded and fried, which is what Lino did. I’m not a huge fan of frying, since there seem to be more than 8,000 ways to do it wrong and only one way to do it right.  Also, frying seems to blunt or distort the flavor of the object fried.  But there was no bluntage last night.

Our little castraure were tender enough to eat whole, stem included, and best of all, they were bitter. It’s a purposeful flavor, stronger and more complex than the everyday artichokes I already love.  Certainly stronger than the later-blooming botoli.  If you don’t like bitter flavors, whether simple or complex, you should abandon your dream of the castraure because they will not compromise or ingratiate themselves, not even for you.

I admire that in a plant.

A few castraure. There was a crowd of confused ants concealed in the blossoms, running around saying "So this is Venice? Gosh, we thought it would be more Gothic or something."

Categories : Venetian Food
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Mar
29

Going to the country

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If you’ve either flown into/out of Venice, or driven into/out of Venice, you already know that the mainland (a/k/a “the rest of the world”) involves a surprising amount of farmland.  Or fields, anyway.  It’s not Kansas, true, but there is a noticeable amount of cultivation going on.

Back in Venice, we have a first-rate country option which doesn’t involve going over the bridge.  Or getting in a car.  We go there in a small boat, rowing.

It’s the island of Sant’ Erasmo — the largest island in the lagoon (3.26 km/s, or 1.25 square miles), though that isn’t what makes it worth knowing about.

It’s farms.  Or better, market gardens, though some of them are larger than what we usually think of as gardens, unless the garden were to be Longwood or Stourhead or the Villa d’Este.

We pull the boat onto the beach at #13, where the two brothers labor in their spare time. The "Sapori di Sant' Erasmo" is slightly inland from #12.

I have mentioned Sant’ Erasmo from time to time — odd, perhaps, when you consider that it isn’t on the way to anywhere, and that if you’re not interested in vegetables or biking or mosquitoes, there isn’t much reason to come all the way over here.

Ninety-eight percent (I made that up) of the island consists of comfortably large plots of grapevines, artichokes, peas, asparagus, and whatever else is likely to grow  in its appointed season.

The words “Sant’ Erasmo” scribbled on signs stuck among the produce at the Rialto Market always means something special (fresh, local, really good). I eventually discovered that (A) the label isn’t always accurate (fancy way of saying “untrue”) and (B) that I can get them at the source itself. This has made me insufferably demanding now. That may seem a little silly when discussing mere vegetation, but I can taste the difference, and I can really taste how much less expensive they are than at the vendor’s stall in the Big City.

Shopping for vegetables is also a great excuse for an excellent row across part of the lagoon.

We have two sources, so far.

Our first option is a modest but flourishing commercial operation called “Sapori di Sant’ Erasmo” (Flavors of Sant’ Erasmo — not a bad name unless you’ve come here often enough to associate the island with the flavor of mosquitoes).  It belongs to Carlo and Claudio Finotello and there is virtually always someone there, ready to sell you some of their produce.  If you’re lucky, also a bottle or two of their wine.  I don’t drink, but I’m very happy that there’s a place where you can get some real local Raboso.

Sant' Erasmo has canals too. This one leads from the lagoon toward the "Sapori di Sant' Erasmo."

If the water weren't so turbid today, you could see what this string is doing: It's attached to a moderately large rubber tube maybe two feet long, which is lying on the bottom waiting to trap any passing eel. Eels check in but they can't turn around and check out.

Either red or white grapes make a very appealing local wine.

Just looking at all this chlorophyll makes me feel healthy and strong.

This little mascareta has been reincarnated as a flower bed. Waste not, want not. And speaking of wanting, as far as I can see, Sant' Erasmo was (and maybe still is) one of the few places on earth where hunger would be virtually unknown. Apart from the fruit and vegetables, there are the fish in the lagoon (or in small fishponds), wild ducks to be hunted, chickens and pigs and goats and anything else you can either find or cultivate. Venice? We don't need no stinking Venice.

The second option is the modest but variegated plot belonging to a man — actually, his aged parents — two steps from where we pull the boat onto the beach near a rumpsprung bar/restaurant called Da Tedeschi.  He’s been known to buy artichokes from him that  he’s just cut off the stalk for us. Tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant.  Only problem is, he isn’t always there.  And/or there’s nothing growing that’s ready or that we even slightly want.

The other morning we went ashore near the second option: The plot near the beach, where we found the man (I still don’t know his name) and his brother (ditto) tilling the soil by their parents’ house. Parents nowhere in sight.  This is what kids are for.

The older man got to talking with us as we watched his brother working the soil with a broad hoe, preparing it to be sown with tiny little Ukrainian onions all ready to take root.

He imparted the following fragments of information: He retired three years ago after 45 years as a master glassmaker on Murano, work which he started when he was 12 because back then, not so many people went on to study and besides, he didn’t like studying all that much.

That there used to be a big acacia tree right over there (pointing toward the beach) that put out pink blossoms in the spring.  They would pick the blossoms, then bread them and deep-fry them, the way people do more commonly  now with zucchini blossoms.  His expression as he remembered this delicacy told me that it was worth experiencing and that he misses it.  I’ve never tried fried acacia flowers, but after having seen his face, I resent the fact that I never had the chance to.

Artichokes: Everyone, even I, knows that Sant’ Erasmo is famous for its “violet” version, and that the salty soil is one factor in their flavor. What I didn’t know is that one plant will put out roots to create four or five other plants, and that a normal plant will produce up to 21 artichokes.

Near the beach, the two brothers (well, one, anyway) are preparing to plant onions.

The little Ukrainian onions waiting to return to the soil.

I have now also learned that they can’t be grown in hothouses. You’ll be glad to know I can’t tell you why (we’d be here all day, at this rate), but I believe him when he says that under the big top the plants grow unnaturally tall, produce fewer artichokes than normal, and that the artichokes they do produce are kind of — he made a soggy, wilting sort of grimace — what they would call “fiapo” (FYA-poh). Fiapo is what happens to your grilled-cheese sandwich when you have to leave it to go answer the phone. People can also be fiapo, usually in August.

Unfortunately, artichokes from Sant’ Erasmo have one thing in common with pieces of the True Cross: There are too many of them to be real.  In fact, artichokes from Livorno, which are trucked over to Venetian markets, come in so much earlier than the Sant’ Erasmo product that labeling them as local eventually caused serious protest.  Telling that little fib will get you a fine, if you’re caught.

Then there was the year of the Big Freeze: His friend had 1,300 peach trees on Sant’ Erasmo. They were all destroyed.


The "violet" artichokes from Sant' Erasmo are famous. The little morsel that's left when you remove those leathery outer leaves is utterly delectable.

But then there was this: The year of the Big Acqua Alta (Nov. 4, 1966, as all the world knows), was the only time Sant’ Erasmo has gone underwater.  In fact, he said, the island was like a semi-submerged barena. Nobody had ever seen this happen, but there were two results.

One: All the crops were totally ruined by the salt water soaking. No surprise there.

Two: The following year, they had a mythically great harvest of just about everything.  Whatever the Adriatic had taken away with the flood, it more than gave back the next year by means of whatever elements it had brought in.  I don’t believe it was just salt, because salting the fields has been a time-dishonored way of destroying future crops for several whiles.

Lino supports my theory that the tide brought something that the salt couldn’t vanquish, because he said that when you raise a sunken boat out of the lagoon, it’s covered with the finest conceivable layer of some kind of material.  I’m imagining melted earth that’s been clarified, like butter.

Anyway, that’s just my theory — obviously the fields knew what was happening, so let’s move on.  What we do know is that the next summer, the memory of the lost winter harvest had been transformed into a glowing realization that life is, indeed, good.

At least on Sant’ Erasmo.

All the plum trees (Prunus domestica) have bloomed at virtually the same moment. You can't see them but there are hundreds of bees gorging themselves in these blossoms. Later, we'll be eating the fruit, known here as baracocoli (roundish and golden).

Categories : Nature, Venetian Food
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I don’t mean to pound this topic into the mud like a piling or anything, but I just thought I’d mention two more flavors that make Venice real to the old gustatory organs.   By which I mean things I eat here that I haven’t really found (or taken seriously) elsewhere:

When the bovoleti are ready to eat, they look almost good.  Gentlemen, start your toothpicks.

When the bovoleti are ready to eat, they look almost good. Gentlemen, start your toothpicks.

Snails, or bovoleti (boh-voh-EH-ti).   Think escargots, with absolutely no pretensions — the polar opposite of pretensions.   And absolutely no taste, either, which is why they are boiled, then thrown in a bowl with an overload of sliced fresh garlic and olive oil.   Snails are merely an excuse to eat oil and garlic, in my view.   It couldn’t possibly be for their nutritional value.   Or their texture, either.   (The garlic helps you get past that, too.   Those old-time hungry people thought of everything.)

Bovoleti show up in late spring and are sold by fishmongers; odd, considering that  your snail is a land creature, happier clinging to some plant stem in a field somewhere.   They’re on sale until after the feast of the Redentore (third Sunday in July).  

The thing to remember about snails is that they tend to wander off. Here at the Rialto fish market, their way is illuminated by reflections from the red awning outside.

The thing to remember about snails is that they tend to wander off. Here at the Rialto fish market, their way is illuminated by reflections from the red awning outside.

Therefore your shrewd snail-seller will block their exit with a ring of salt.  One does wonder how the little critters stay alive under water, since they don't have gills.  Maybe they're all holding their breath.

Therefore your shrewd snail-seller will block their exit with a ring of salt. One does wonder how the little critters stay alive under water, since they don't have gills. Maybe they're all holding their breath and hoping for better days, like the rest of us.

The palazzo Contarini has a distinctive staircase which has long since been nicknamed "del bovolo" -- of the snail.

The palazzo Contarini has a distinctive staircase which has long since been nicknamed "del bovolo" -- of the snail.

In fact, that festival is their moment of glory, if snails can be said to have one, because there they demonstrate their other sterling quality, as entertainment.   Eating them gives you something to do while you’re waiting for the fireworks.   Slippery little shell in one hand, toothpick in the other, the point is to snag and pull out the bit of whatever you’d call that material that used to be alive, and eat it.   The waters of the Giudecca Canal can be speckled with these shells, tossed overboard by oily-fingered  people who are beginning to run out of conversation.

The other special item  would be fondi, or artichoke bottoms.   Perhaps you didn’t realize that an artichoke has a bottom, but usually there is somebody  near a fruit and vegetable stand who has been assigned a mountain of big tough artichokes and told to cut off all those leathery outer leaves and other useless bits (which is most of the artichoke) with a knife  as sharp as a billhook, then carve a neat disk from what remains.

The artichoke puts up a struggle, but with the right knife and the will to prevail, you'll have something really good to eat.  If you get bored with them like this, chop up a few and mix them with some pasta.

The artichoke puts up a struggle, but with the right knife and the will to prevail, you'll have something really good to eat. If you get bored with them like this, chop up a few and mix them with some pasta.

Simmer slowly in — you  know what’s coming — oil and garlic, throw some  minced parsley over them, and there you have your daily thistle.  

Bit of useless information: You may discover that in Venice there are two words for artichoke used interchangeably:  carciofo and articioco.   Carciofo (kar-CHAWF-oh) is the  standard word, but across northern Italy, from Friuli to Liguria, you’ll find variations on articioco (ar-tee-CHOKE-oh).   Such as:   articjoc, articioc, articioch, and articiocc.   Both carciofo and articioco ultimately derive from  Arabic; carciofo from kharshuf, and articioco probably from the Old Spanish alcachofa, which in turn came from Arabic.

Sometimes words are almost more delectable to me than the thing they represent.   But I’ll stop here.   Must.   Go.   Eat.

At this stage, the poppies and artichokes are more or less struggling for dominance.  I suppose you could eat the poppies, but I'll stick with the spiky little purple flower I know.

At this stage, the poppies and artichokes on Sant' Erasmo are more or less struggling for dominance. I suppose you could eat the poppies, but I'll stick with the spiky little purple flower I know.

Categories : Food, History, Venetian-ness
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Jun
17

Sensing Venice: Taste

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A rare sighting of the trio of great spring vegetables together: asparagus, peas lurking behind them, and artichokes lurking to the lower right.  The jury is instructed to disregard the figs, which are obviously from some hothouse somewhere, as the local ones don't appear till August, as God intended.

A rare sighting of the trio of great spring vegetables together: asparagus, peas lurking behind them, and artichokes lurking to the lower right. The jury is instructed to disregard the figs, which are obviously from some hothouse somewhere, as the local ones don't appear till August, as God intended.

The gustatory sense is next on my list of attributes of the sensual Venice because this time of year is swamped, decks awash, in great things to eat.   If one is inclined (“one” meaning “me”) to focus on seasonal comestibles, then this is a period that verges on the orgiastic.   Naturally I try to conceal this.   Sort of.

From October to April we eat in a sensible-shoes sort of way –plenty of local food, warm, sustaining,  totally good for you but not very exciting, if you don’t count the castradina in November or the roast eel on Christmas Eve, and several forms of pastry.   But this somewhat restrained diet means that by spring I’m watching for the first asparagus with an intensity most people give to  watching the Powerball drawing.

At the annual patron saint's festa on Sant' Erasmo in early June, the farmers sell their produce practically in job lots.

At the annual patron saint's festa on Sant' Erasmo in early June, the farmers sell their produce essentially in job lots. It all looks so good I think they must call in makeup artists.

When  I finally see that first green stalk, it’s like the starter’s gun  on a  new season of — how can I put this delicately? I can’t — glorious glut.  

First comes the asparagus, which is steamed or boiled and often eaten with hard-boiled eggs cut in half.   Sprinkle this assortment with salt, pepper, and extravirgin olive oil, and you’ve had dinner.  

 

 

IMG_2076 ven taste comp

These are definitely my favorite flower to eat.

Shortly thereafter the artichokes  arrive.   Not just any artichoke, but the carciofo violetto  from Sant’ Erasmo.   This is a purple variety that thrives around the lagoon — we’ve had them from the Vignole, and from Malamocco, though apartment buildings now cover the artichoke fields that Lino remembers.    The encyclopedia says they are also to be had from Chioggia, but I’ve never knowingly eaten anything from Chioggia except a type of radicchio.    In any case,  the saline environment evidently does something important to the old Cynara scolymus, if my taste buds are not lying to me.

This spring we rowed over to Sant’ Erasmo many times, which meant that we’ve  eaten more artichokes in the past five weeks than ever before, I think.   We’d come home with bags of these little creatures, often cut off the plant just for us, paying about two-thirds less than the price at the Rialto.   We’d pull off the outer leaves and eat the inner morsel raw.   We’d simmer them in olive oil and garlic.   We’d cut them in half and throw them on the griddle.   We even experimented with boiling them and then storing them in a jar full of olive oil.   No verdict yet on how those turned out, but it’s hard to imagine they could be bad.

I approve of a food that comes in its own wrapper, even if I do have to pay for the extra weight.

I approve of a food that comes in its own wrapper, even if I do have to pay for the extra weight.

Peas:   Fresh peas are next up,  the crucial element to risi e bisi (REE-zee eh Bee-zee), or pea risotto,  a Venetian classic.   Preparing artichokes is a very grown-up sort of thing to do, but shelling peas takes me very, very far back.     I could be anywhere (say, Venice)  and it would still make me feel like I was sitting on somebody’s  back porch.   The only thing I object to about fresh peas is the same thing I object to about fresh pinto beans: you pay by weight, which means you’re paying for a whole pod in order to get a batch of little pellets.   That’s another thing I’m going to have to change when I get to be in charge of the world.

This is an early spring bonus: carletti, which Lino finds on foraging expeditions along the lagoon edge of the Lido.

This is an early spring bonus: carletti, which Lino finds on foraging expeditions along the lagoon edge of the Lido.

After a few weeks of glory this trinity of sublime plant life has begun to fade from the scene and I will not be eating them again till next spring, even if I could get them from hothouses in Sicily or Israel or who knows where.   But other things will be along — lettuce and string beans and tomatoes and eggplant. The faithful old zucchine.   Fresh tomatoes right off the vine — we make our own sauce.     Around here, “Eat your vegetables”  sounds  like  an invitation to a party.

Clamming is hard work if you don't really love it.  Lino's got the capacity to focus of a

Clamming is hard work if you don't really love it. Lino's got the focus of a lion stalking its prey.

And the clamming season is now officially open — to the entire world, if your average Sunday afternoon in the lagoon is any indication.   Of course it’s open all year to the professionals, but families spend recreational summer  hours digging around in the shallows, and it is probably Lino’s favorite thing to do, way ahead of sleeping or eating.   Maybe even drinking.   It must be like meditation or yoga.   He can do it for hours.

So we’ve already been out a few  clam-hunting expeditions.   The trick is to find some patch of terrain that hasn’t already been  ravaged  by  legions of trippers.  Lino is very patient and he actually looks for the clams, one by one, whereas most of the other mighty nimrods  just claw up fistfuls of mud   hoping to find something good.   These are not fishermen, these are locusts.

After we’ve let the clams  soak in a bucket of  lagoon water for several hours, we take them home, and get ready for the Great Cooking Thereof.   This may not happen immediately; we may have to leave them in the fridge in their plastic bag for a little while.    They kind of hang out in there till we’re ready to cook them.   When we put the  bag in the sink, I can hear them making moist little shifting and tchk-tchk noises.    Yes, they’re still alive, and these little sounds sort of do something to me.   Maybe they’re talking about how much they enjoyed spending  the afternoon in the  dark and the cool.   I hope so.   I’m glad they don’t know what’s coming next.

Lino brought home the ideal assortment -- cape tonde ("malgarote"), caparozzoli, sansonei, lungoni, and the occasional bevarassa.  Now we're introducing them to oil and garlic.

Lino brought home the ideal assortment -- cape tonde ("malgarote"), caparozzoli, sansonei, lungoni, and the occasional bevarassa. Now we're introducing them to oil and garlic.

So we  throw them into a large saute pan with garlic and oil.   Steam goes everywhere.   About a minute later they’ve given their last dying gasp, opened their shells and succumbed.   We put them in a bowl where they slosh around in a celestial broth of their own saltwater, garlic, lemon juice and chopped parsley and we eat them like crazed little swine, right out of the shell —  ignoring scalded fingertips, drops of oily water falling at random.

I’ve been talking about clams in a generic sort of way, but there are all sorts of bivalves to be had out there.   Bevarasse (Venus gallina), sansonei, cape lunghe (Solen vagina), cape tonde (Cardium edule), caragoi (Vulgocerithium vulgatum),  canestrei (Pecten opercularis), to name a few.     There are also oysters — Lino went out on Christmas Eve a few years ago and brought back a load of fresh lagoon oysters, which were delicately sweet.   Wish he’d do it again.

Just a few short hours ago, these mussels were clinging to their piling wondering what to do today.  Unfortunately for them, we got to decide.

Just a few short hours ago, these mussels were clinging to their piling wondering what to do today. Unfortunately for them, we got to decide.

And now it’s mussels.   A friend of ours went out in his boat yesterday with a fiendish contraption and scraped a huge amount of them off the pilings — wait, I’m not finished! — the pilings in the lagoon near the island of the Certosa, near the inlet of San Nicolo’, where the tide is so strong that the water is always really clean.   Last night we permitted ourselves a modest gorge, annihilating a large bowl in a very short time.   They were divine.

Somebody gave us a batch of canestrei, or "lid scallops." It took no time at all to open, bread, and fry them. You don't like fried food? Try these.

Somebody gave us a batch of canestrei, or "lid scallops." It took no time at all to open, bread, and fry them. You don't like fried food? Try these.

Whatever remains of the clams or the mussels is either thrown into tomato sauce for pasta later, or set aside (clams especially) for a risotto.   Then we go out and get more.

I haven’t even gotten to the subject of fruit or ice cream, which are whole galaxies of delectable on their own, but I’m worn out.   So let’s all put our heads down on our desks and be quiet for a few minutes.  

 But as we do, let me just repeat something I say far too often: It’s not easy to eat really well (not impossible, but not easy, to eat really well) in a restaurant in Venice, but here at home we eat better than the entire dynasty of Gediminids.

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Categories : Food, Nature, Venetian-ness
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