Invisible City pt. 3


“In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no-one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver

They drink quite a lot, in Venice. In the south of Italy, alcohol seems confined mainly to the aperitivo and the wine with dinner; too hot, too sluggish perhaps to drink your way round the dusty streets of Naples or through the shadows of Palermo, especially filled with spaghetti or the fat doughy pizza of Sicily. The south runs more on their oily thimbles of coffee than anything else.

That’s not to say that Venice is constantly sloshed, awash with binge-drinking gondoliers, fishmongers, restaurateurs, wine merchants, sellers of glass and tat, although the pre-Lenten carnival presumably affords some opportunities for public drunkenness; although (relatively) northern and seafarers to boot, their drinking is restrained in comparison to your Dane, your German, and your Swagbellied Hollander, let alone our own fair nation.

It’s more that Venice affords so many different opportunities for drinking; every hour of the day and of the night seems to have its own particular drink, whether a little shadow of wine, a good, cooling beer, an expansively refreshing spritz or a glass of medicinal bitters. At one or two in the afternoon the bars around the Rialto market are full to bursting; the butchers, the fishermen and the greengrocers have all been up since the very early hours of the morning, and they need a drink.

This is good; obviously, it’s good, but it’s especially so because a lot of the best (and certainly some of the best value) food in Venice is found in bars, in the form of cicheti, little snacks on toothpicks or rounds of toasted baguette or, very often, squares of grilled white polenta; more substantially, you might have slices of good, dense sausage or halves of sandwiches, with tuna, egg, creamed radicchio, salami or bresaola stuffed between the cheapest white bread.

You finally see where all those artichokes from the market go; they end up here, trimmed and simply cooked, between the frittata and the crostini, in the glass case on this small bar in this long, narrow room, hung about with pots and lined with barrels and bottles, which contain sweet honeyed whites, inscrutable reds, and, of course, the abundant and quite surprisingly cheap prosecco. Apparently it even comes defizzed.

Although expensive, crowded, prone to flooding, trashy, smelly, labyrinthine and the rest, it is hard not to love a place which revolves so closely around this daily cycle of eating and drinking; where Fernet Branca is an acceptable breakfast food, and where there is always time for a snack and a little glass of something, out of the shade.

Invisible City pt. 2


“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.

Invisible City pt. 1

“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver

 

Venice, it’s fair to say, is a city mainly composed of bridges and water, a fact emphasised when you enter it, by vaporetta, on a chilly, rainy day in late February, the kind of day when the sky and the water seem composed of the same great sheet of grey. The canals lap at the seaweed-bearded streets; bridges appear out of nowhere, and any alley might lead equally to a church or to the sea. Why anyone chose to build a city there is beyond me, but I suppose they made a good go of it, becoming “excellently amphibious” in response to their waterlogged, sinking surroundings, bringing, for a while, large parts of the Mediterranean under the control of their largely mercantile empire.

 

I always find it fascinating to trace the history of a place through its cuisine; part of what I love about Sicilian food is the little touches of Arab and Spanish flavour, the faint whispers, even, of Roman and Greek – seemingly un-Italian spicings, sweet fruit and meat, the absolute ubiquity of the anchovy – but apart from the occasional flourish of cinnamon, little seems to remain of La Serenissima’s once-vital place on the spice route. Apart from a few remnants of later occupations – the cream doughnuts and the peculiar Venetian lust for strudel – their cuisine is as amphibious as them, entirely a product of the lagoon and its immediate surrounds; which is to say that they eat a hell of a lot of fish.

 

Apart from breakfast, which for Venetians means an espresso and a cornetto and for us meant the bountiful purgatory of the Continental buffet, almost every meal we had was largely aquatic. The first night was cuttlefish in sticky ink, thick bigoli pasta in a dense sauce of anchovies, sardines in their beautiful sweet-sour bath, and simply boiled king crab; the next, tiny, toy-like octopus and spaghetti vongole; for lunch, the little soft-shelled local crabs, no bigger than the palm of your hand, which stuff themselves with Parmesan batter in a morbid frenzy before a quick end in hot oil. In between, very often, there was baccala. Although, as far as I can gather, this is made with stockfish rather than salt cod – that is to say, dried without being salted, giving it all the hairy texture without the sometimes overpowering flavour – it shares a lot, in its most common preparation, with the Catalan brandada and the French brandade.

 

Although all these (and salt cod in general) seem totemically Mediterranean dishes, they are essentially a product of trade, early fusion cuisine. The fish, from cold and teeming northern waters, was salted and dried on cold Scandinavian beaches, in dry Scandinavian winds, travelling almost to the other end of the known world to be revived and mixed with good southern olive oil and cracked eastern pepper – and, for the last few hundred years, served on grilled cakes of ground Mexican corn.

 

I make my own salt fish (normally with hake or ling, for various reasons) but don’t generally dry it; I’ll give that a go, and work on a recipe for baccala mantecato. In the meantime, look for Russell Norman’s POLPO recipe; or go and eat it at Polpetto, where it is perfect.