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.

Over-Cooked

I first tried rabbit on a pork-tasting trip around the Peak District – specifically, around parts of Derbyshire – where we sampled the quite impressive array of pork scratchings (and crackling – the difference, in a pub snack context, has never been clear to me) on offer in various pubs. Fun though this was, we had decided to take a night off (a birthday was involved) for a meal in Buxton. With its opera house, its spring water, the distant grandeur of the surrounding skyline (and despite being in the Midlands), Buxton can, I think, justifiably claim the title of the Italy of the North; we weren’t surprised, then, to find a lovely trattoria right in the town centre, all wood and leather and stairs and painted glass. The menu was pretty decent, too, from what I remember (we had quite a lot of wine – a birthday was involved) – we had snails to start, topped with vivid splashes of green, and there was squid-ink ravioli and calf liver and onions and I had rabbit, as I said, which had been stewed on the bone in a tomato sauce that could have been richer if you ask me. It was overcooked, dry but still tasty, and it might have been the wine or the company but that stands out in my mind as a hugely enjoyable dinner (we went clubbing afterwards – not an activity I recommend in Buxton), and I’ve loved rabbit ever since. The trick, of course, is not to overcook it – and to make the tomato sauce richer.

“Taking care not to overcook” is a particularly annoying piece of recipese, up there with “if liked” on my personal list. Presumably you are always taking at least some care not to overcook, and if not, the odd admonition is unlikely to make much difference. The implication, of course, is that the ingredient and process mentioned are particularly likely to result in overcooking, or that the consequences of overcooking are more drastic than usual. Without telling you exactly how not to overcook, though, or what the early-warning signs that you are doing so might be, these imprecations are worse than useless, throwing the cook into a panic without giving any way out. With any slow-cooked meat, it can be hard to judge the point where slow, happy disintegration shades into overcooking, a problem which is exacerbated in a meat as naturally lean as rabbit (all game suffers from a similar problem, which is why I’m not a huge fan of slow-cooked venison) – especially, and I’m sorry if I’m labouring this point, the tomato sauce (or other cooking medium) isn’t rich enough. When I started cooking rabbit, I used to stew the animal in its entirety, something which, for a number of reasons, you’d never do with a cow or sheep, though you might get away with a pig. As a result, the tender saddle meat always ended up tough and dry, a problem which I thought could be fixed by longer stewing, thereby messing up the whole dish. Now, of course, I keep the saddle fillets separate, and make rabbit nuggets.

This is a happy place to have arrived at, but the journey could have been halved if anyone had told me what to look for while I was taking care not to overcook my rabbit. A problem with recipes as a genre is that they do rather assume you know what the finished result should taste like – an assumption which robs them of a large part of their use, or certainly of their egalitarianism. A good cookbook should throw open the cuisines of the world and of history, and make them available to anyone who can follow a set of instructions. Without a certain degree of precision in the matter, say, of what overcooked rabbit looks like, or the degree of reduction in a tagine, or the careful balance of spicing in a proper Istanbul kebab, you are narrowing your audience to those who can afford to go and get the real thing. I mention examples from world food, but this applies just as much to restaurant cookbooks, which need the same sort of precision if they are to be more than just souvenirs of a good meal. The Nose To Tail cookbooks are so good because they manage to call up the whole atmosphere and ethos of St John, and I loved them long before I could afford to eat there. They are welcoming, in a way that, say, White Heat is not, and this welcome is extended in the balance between blithe imprecision – ovens are only ever gentle, medium, hot – and absolute clarity. Rabbit is ready when a knife can be slipped easily into its haunch; this is true, and useful, and immediately understandable. If only those Buxton-Italians had known. They could have taken some advice on the sauce too.