Archive for carletti
I’m sorry I didn’t think to check on the exact instant of the equinox in order to give Venice an appropriate little salute. I knew this anniversary was imminent and now I’ve discovered it was two days ago.
In any case, most of the signs have been with us for a while now. I can report that March came in like a lamb, but seeing how screwy the weather has become, I have no idea what sort of animal its departure is going to resemble. Maybe a bumblebee bat or a star-nosed mole. I’ll let you know.
Yesterday we rowed to Sant’ Erasmo to forage for some carletti. Unhappily, we didn’t find any at all, which is slightly disturbing (check one “sign of spring” off the life list). So we brought home a big bag full of dandelion greens instead. Lino’s happy because he says it’s good for “purifying the blood.” My grandfather did the same, he said, by dosing himself with blackstrap molasses. That’ll wake you up, no matter what it may do to your blood. I intuit that this instinct is somehow related to the rousing-from-winter-lethargy/hibernation process we watch on the Discovery Channel.
Speaking of rousing, though, I am still awaiting one fundamental sign of spring, which is the blackbirds singing at dawn. Every year I have heard one — evidently assigned to our neighborhood by the Chief Herald — which began to sing exactly at 4:00 AM. It was uncanny. I’m not saying I’ve been getting up at that hour specifically to hear it, though it would certainly be worth it. But considering that I’m up anyway, its solitary cadenzas always made the morning beautiful even while it was still dark.
So far, I’ve heard one (1) blackbird singing at 6:30 PM. Of course it can sing whenever it wants to, but I cannot fathom why I’m not hearing any before then. Frankly, I don’t understand how the sun — or me, for that matter — has managed to rise without it.
At any rate, my favorite phase of spring is already past. Anybody can love spring when the flowers begin to bloom (I’ve already seen early blossoms sneaking out of their buds on a few plum and almond trees, and of course there will be a deluge of jasmine and wisteria before long). But I love spring when the weather is still cold and unfriendly but you can just begin to detect tiny wisps of earlier sunlight and see even tinier buds on the trees just beginning to expand with their extremely tiny leaves, awaiting some signal I’ll never detect.
Once the daffodils come out, spring is so obvious that I consider it to be essentially over.
I mentioned carletti the other day: Their charm, their rareness, their brief life on earth, at least in their edible form.
I wondered for years what they really were, but just went on eating them anyway. If I were feeling very energetic, I would say to myself, “Sometime I must find out what these are.” My life being already sufficiently supplied with “I must”s, carletti came and went every year in tranquil anonymity.
Two nights ago, though, all was revealed. With the right question to Lino (which is often the key to new realms of knowledge), plus the right book — who knew it was sitting right there? — I can now tell you with complete confidence who are the carletti.
They are Silene vulgaris. In Italy they go by various aliases, such as stridoli, strigoli, bubbolino, or sciopetin (s-cho-pet-TEEN), for the little popping sound they make if you pinch the flower, it says here.
In English they are commonly known as bladder campion. As good a name as any, true, but hardly as charming as carletti. Everyone seems to agree that by any name their new leaves are delectable.
Here follows a moment of unsolicited candor: I love them because they are so fleeting, so wild, and so rare. But I have yet to identify an attribute I could call “flavor.” The books all say that their taste is delicate, and I can confirm that. In fact, I’d say would say “so delicate that you might as well imagine it.”
Delicate is not as helpful a description as one might wish. In my view, a delicate perfume means “disappears in two minutes, so why did I bother.” A delicate fabric means “I can wear it twice a year if I don’t mind spending the rest of the time giving it more care than you give the average premature polar bear.” Delicate health, in my opinion, often means “Great excuse to get out of doing anything strenuous or unpleasant while pretending to be distressed by this.”
Back to delicate flavors. I know they exist and I know they can be memorable. At least I think I know that. They’re so delicate sometimes I have trouble remembering. Ask me right now what carletti taste like and there will be long, long moments of radio silence. Interrupted by the muffled sound of eating.
There ought to be a special Venetian handshake, or greeting, or food (what? no special food??) to mark this little anniversary.
But I did hear something that sounded like a mystic knock at the year’s door, loud enough to be heard but perhaps not enough to be noticed.
The knock that struck ever so faintly on the old cochlea was delivered at the Rialto market. (You see? Of course food belongs in the picture. I was only testing you.)
Instead of an occult greeting, there is an assortment of poetry passed on by the ancients to acknowledge the moment. Once again, it comes from the fathomless store of balladry that Lino memorized as a lad. If his teachers had had any notion that his brain was going to retain all this material far, far into the distant decades — maybe even forever — they might have wondered if it would have been better to have him memorize something else. Like algorithms, or the names of the then-68 member countries of the UN, or all the books of the Bible.
But poetry seems to have turned out to work better, because how often in any day or occasion would it be necessary, or even appreciated, to burst out with all the books of the Bible? Poetry, however, is always the Right Thing to say.
So this morning, like every March 21, was marked by a spontaneous recitation of the vernal poesy of Giovanni Pascoli and Angiolo Silvio Novaro. Read these to the mental music of blackbirds cantillating in the dawn, and the sound of the truck delivering the branches of peach blossoms from Sicily.
If I had time, I would research the reasons for selling peach blossoms, and not apple or apricot or almond or any other flowering tree. I myself would like to know the reasons, but for now I can only say that these are here because that’s what people do. “People” meaning the growers, sellers, and buyers. So don’t come asking for pear or loquat blossoms or any other frippery.
Valentino, by Giovanni Pascoli. Lino launches into it like greeting an old friend: “Oh! Valentino vestito di nuovo/come le brocche dei biancospini!/Solo, ai piedini provato dal rovo/porti la pelle de’ tuoi piedini…”
Then there are lines he doesn’t remember so I’ll skip those, then the conclusion and the link to March: “… e venne/Marzo, e tu magro contadinello/restasti a mezzo…ma nudi i piedi, come un uccello:/come l’uccello venuto dal mare,/che tra il ciliegio salta, e non sa/ch’oltre il beccare, il cantare, l’amare/ci sia qualch’altra felicita’.”
Valentino is a poor country boy whose widowed mother survives by selling the eggs from their chickens. Winter is brutally hard and he has outgrown the shoes she made for him. The poet compares his bare feet to those of a bird. But then in March come the first signs of spring, and he concludes, “like a bird that came from the sea, that leaps in the cherry tree, and doesn’t know that other than to eat, to sing, to love, there could be any other happiness.”
The second of these classics is a little paean to the soft rain of March, which makes the plants begin to bloom.
Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo? by Angiolo Silvio Novaro:
Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo/che picchia argentina/Sui tegoli vecchi/Del tetto, sui bruscoli secchi/Dell’orto, sul fico e sul moro/Ornati di gemmule d’oro?”
“What says the misty rain of March/that strikes silvery/On the old tiles/Of the roof, on the dry motes/Of the garden, on the fig and on the mulberry/Adorned with buds of gold?”
He goes on to say that winter is past, tomorrow spring will come out, trimmed with buds and frills,with bright sun, fresh violets, the beating of birds’ wings, nests, cries, swallows, and the stars of almond, white… The entire team, in other words, plus cheerleaders.
All this sounds much better in Italian, but in any language these poems and their ilk amount to a deep sigh of relief. Sometimes it’s not so much that spring is here, but that winter is gone. Less winter, more spring. If that doesn’t call for a poem, you may have a soul made of styrofoam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.