“When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets … how many kinds of pavement cover the ground” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver
So much of Venice reaches up and away from the water, from the intricate canals and from the lagoon itself. The long needle of the Campanile, and the squares of Paul and the Magdalene, where, if you stand in the middle, you can pretend you are in a solid, everyday city, are the most successful; all of the buildings, though, all of the warehouses and palazzos and the elaborate bridges, do their best to reach away from the seaweed which purrs at their foundations.
These days the canals are reserved for richer tourists, who the gondolas, still black-clad for shadowy assignations and espionage, ferry around a largely forgotten city. The trattorias, with their lace curtains, batteries of hanging pots and their poorly-rendered aquatic scenes, sell endless processions of cuttlefish and calamari, while the still-living markets heave with the terrestrial products of the Veneto, with puntarelle, with radicchios of all kinds – curled, spotted, delicately pink – with honey-sweet apples, large and baby and carved artichokes, cardoons and celery and cauliflowers and all of the other favourites of the vegetable-loving Italians.
Here, though, in the richest part of the country, leaves don’t carry quite the same respectability as they do in the poor, dried-up south; here, the restaurants which offer an alternative to seafood tend to do so in the form of elaborate dishes of meat. These days we tend to think of Italian cuisine as all cucina povera, breadcrumbs and strange fish and offal; liver and onions, of course, is a favourite of Venice, and I saw tripe, tongue and the like in various butchers windows and on the bars of smaller eateries. In a restaurant, though, you might get half a duck, roasted and drenched in a quite astonishingly rich ragu of chicken livers; fricassees of veal, both sweet and deeply savoury; and, of course, the famous carpaccio, a fairly recent invention of the upmarket Harry’s Bar.
Apart from the latter, a distinctly urban dish, this might get described as ‘mountain food’; aware, perhaps, that their amphibious city has become a playground for tourists, the Venetians look inland and up for a different taste of home. Even here, though, they can’t escape the water. If you wander about the houses between the Accademia bridge and the Grand Canal, you might find a strange replica of an Alpine hut, hung about with straw hands and opening on to a boat yard; it is a gondola workshop, and the people who build and pilot them are often, themselves, sons of the Dolomites and beyond, far from their solid mountain homes.
I’m preparing for Burns Night, the real foodie winter festival. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas (I’m deeply suspicious of anyone that doesn’t), it’s just there’re so many distractions – presents, decorations, family, carols – that it’s hard, sometimes, to just get stuck in. For Burns Night, on the other hand, there is just enough ceremony to provide an excuse for the meal, and no more – which is as it should be. Furthermore, as we’re not subjected to haggis sandwiches and three-courses-for-£25-office-Burns-Night-meals for a month and a half beforehand and are therefore not bored sick of the whole affair, no one has yet seen fit to mess around with the meal. Instead, we are bound by iron, delicious, tradition – and the fact that it involves offal and whisky makes it all the better.
Of course, such a limited menu gives you little scope for showing off – so what do you do? You make your own haggis. I should warn you in advance that it is quite an undertaking, at least in terms of sourcing the ingredients; Fergus Henderson, whose recipe I adapted, seems to assume you won’t even try to make it, as he neglects to mention how hard it is to get a sheep’s pluck. I asked a couple of butchers, and scoured the internet, with no luck, but reasoning that the lungs probably don’t taste of much, I went with what I could get. Accordingly, this recipe assumes you will use sausage skins rather than one whole stomach; a less impressive spectacle, perhaps, but still very satisfying to make.
Enough for 8.
Large branches of Tesco are good for lamb offal if your butcher can’t oblige; places like Lakeland normally stock sausage skins. The oatmeal might be hardest to track down – you don’t want rolled, porridge or jumbo oats, which are steamed. Try health food shops.
3 lamb hearts
400g lamb liver
1 carrot, roughly chopped
Half an onion
A leek, roughly chopped
2 large onions, finely chopped
A little lard or butter
100g coarse oatmeal, toasted in a dry pan
100g dried breadcrumbs (buy panko or pangrattato, or make your own)
200g beef suet
4 tsp coarse ground pepper
2 tsp ground allspice
A pack of sausage skins or similar
Rinse the offal, then place in a large pan with the whole spices and stock veg. Cover with cold water and a big pinch of salt, bring to the boil, then simmer for two hours, skimming off the scum (there will be a lot) and fishing out the liver half way through. Meanwhile, sweat the chopped onion in lard or butter until very soft and sweet.
When the lights are cooked and cooled (save 500ml of the stock), dice roughly then coarsely blitz in a food processor, using the pulse button – you don’t want a smooth paste. Tip the result into a large bowl, then add the cooked onions, the reserved stock, and the rest of the ingredients (apart from the sausage skins, obviously). Mix thoroughly with your hands, and salt to your liking.
When happy, stuff or pipe into your skins or whatever; I used a sausage gun designed for the purpose, but a piping bag, bought or improvised, would do. If you can’t be bothered with any of that, just bake it in a flat tray like Paxo stuffing; it won’t be as fun, but will still be delicious. Leave your sausages in the fridge overnight to firm up.
When you’re ready to eat, heat the oven to gas mark 5/190C/375F. Put the haggises in a deep, oven-proof frying pan, and just cover with water. Bring to a boil on the hob, let them bubble until the water’s half gone, then stick in the oven to brown up and finish cooking – another 15 minutes or so.
Serve with neeps and tatties , a wee dram (mandatory) and perhaps some greens and mustard. Get someone to recite ‘Address to a Haggis’ in their silliest Scots, and plunge your knives in at the third stanza. Enjoy!