A Midsummer Voyage Through the Venetian Territories
Sugar Street Supper Club: the story behind the menu
“Litha: Midsummer’s Eve, the solstice.
… the veil between this world and the next is quite thin, so precautions must be taken.
Colours: Yellow, Pink, Gold”
Nikki van de Car, Practical Magic: A Beginner’s Guide
In the sixteenth century, the Venetian empire stretched from Lombardy to Cyprus and beyond, incorporating trading posts in Alexandria, Tripoli, Trebizond, Constantinople, the Crimea and the Black Sea. The city herself, the mighty Serenissima, was the world’s most exotic emporium, where the merchandise of the known world was traded into Western Europe. Cornish tin and Russian furs, Chinese silk and Baltic amber were exchanged to the busy click of abacuses on the Rialto, where our journey begins. Sea bream with shallots and strawberries is a mouthful of a summer’s morning, the glistening fish of the lagoon and the sweet fruits of Sant’Erasmo.
For centuries, the Genoese were the great commercial and military rivals of Venice. We think of pesto as a Ligurian dish, but it has its origins in the Mediterranean herbs gathered along the coasts of Dalmatia. The Venetians joked that the Genoese captains were too mean to permit their crews to use the precious spices of their cargo to flavour their food, requiring them to forage on-shore instead. The Genoese sailors might have dreamed of sugar and cinnamon, but our first course of tagliatelle with mint, parsley and basil pesto is a tribute to their frugal cuisine. Almonds and lightly grilled scallop recall the brudet, or enriched fish stew of the Dalmatian littoral, whilst we add a Venetian twist with our Marsala butter.
Traditionally, Venetians preferred their own Malvasia wine to Sicilian Marsala, which in the nineteenth century became the most highly prized wine of Europe. However, Marsala played an uplifting part in one of the last struggles of the Venetian Republic. In December 1847, Daniel Manin issued a declaration of rights, denouncing Austrian rule in Venice. He was imprisoned, but as popular rebellion swelled, he was liberated and carried home in triumph by his supporters. Standing on a table at Florian’s, Manin proclaimed Venetian independence, promptly occupied the Arsenale and called the Venetians to arms. By spring 1848, the former republic stood alone against the Austrian Empire. Cannon fired on the besieged city from the mainland, and the Venetians’ resistance was further sapped by an epidemic of cholera. Eventually, they had no choice but to surrender, but not before Manin and his companions had stormed the palazzo of the Austrian governor, Admiral Palffy, where they found a hidden cache of 1,471 choice bottles, including rare Marsala. Defiant in defeat, the Venetians only lowered the standard of San Marco once they had polished off the wine!
Drifting through the midsummer haze, we approach Turkey, where we pause for a refreshing salad of cherries and rose petals, a sharp, sensuous combination which conjures the delicate sherbets of the seraglio. Passing the Hellespont, we approach our main course, fesenjan, along the Black Sea. In the thirteenth century, Venice established trading communes on the Black Sea coast, exchanging goods (and slaves) with the Mamluk empire of Egypt. Here the flavours of the steppe mingled with those of ancient Persia. Pesce in saor is a familiar Venetian recipe, but the sweet-sour combination echoes recipes found in southern Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and North Africa, all of which have their origin in the tangy Persian stew sikbaj. The use of fruits and nuts with meat had found its way into Venetian cooking by the mid 1300’s, as evidenced by one of the world’s first vernacular cookery books (written in Venetian), the “Libro per Cuoco”, which includes a recipe for meat lasagne with sweet walnut sauce. Similarly, Fesenjan uses the walnuts and pomegranates of Persia, refreshed with the summer berries of the Venetian ports of Marocastro and Licostorno.
Returning to Venice in the evening, the wind begins to blow from the east. The scent of jasmine billows from the Lido along the Grand Canal; on Giudecca, someone is making orange-flower fritters. As night falls, Venice is alive with perfumes. In 1775, Giovanni Battista Anfossi produced “On the Uses and Abuses of Chocolate”, which spoke of the Venetian’s adaptation of this fashionable delicacy, mixing it with vanilla and aromatic flowers. Venetians’ love of chocolate is well documented, from Longhi’s conversazione in the Ca’Rezzonico museum to Goldoni’s verse, so our final course combines the richness of chocolate with the exquisite scents of a Venetian summer garden. The oar dips, trailing bright streams of saffron and rose over the silvered lagoon. We know we’re home.
Pea shoot gremolata | Deep fried sage leaves | Anchovy butter
Rialto: Carpaccio of sea bream, strawberry shallot dressing, dried strawberries
Dalmatia: Fresh herb tagliatelle, pistachio, almond, scallop in Marsala butter
Towards Turkey: cucumber, radish and cherry salad, mint, rose petals
Black Sea: Fesenjan-stew of chicken, walnut pomegranate, raspberries, saffron rice
Breeze over the Bacino: Dark chocolate tart, orange blossom cream