Book of Cook
A Christmas Story for Saint Lucy's Day
Lisa writes… Sometimes Christmas recipes can feel a bit overwhelming, so this week we thought about using some Venetian original ‘receipts” in a different way. We hope you enjoy this little story, which incorporates many of the themes and ideas we have researched this year for the Venetian Supper Club newsletter.
Book of Cook: A Story for Saint Lucy’s Day
2 October: San’Eleuterio
“An optimal receipt for thwarted longing of the heart: take a pound of good millet and wash it well and put it with the same of water on a hot fire. Stir it quickly for the time it takes to say ten Our Fathers so that it should not scorch and turn it out. Drink the water from the pot where you have cooked it and think of nothing but the meal in front of you and this will be good and will overpower the pain.”
Lucia knelt in front of the kitchen fire. She drank up all the water and I watched her and thought as hard as I could on the golden curds as they roiled in the pot but afterwards she set to weeping again and was not resigned to go to the holy sisters at San Zaccaria so I think that this receipt is not so good. She went upstairs to bed and I to my book. This cure is from the mountains of Wallachia whence my mother came, and my master paid 155 gold pieces for her at Chios.
On my way to market I look across the lagoon at the mountains. Sometimes, in early winter when the air is very still and bright I see the pink rocks high over the water and even the needles on the pine trees, and I think on the white and perfect snow which skeins across the world to the place my mother was born. The finest cooks are Wallachs as everyone says, so I play betimes that this receipt is in my blood, but I know it is not, for I came across the dark sea to Venice in my mother’s belly and the nearest I have come to a mountain is the dung heap in the yard. Lucia told me of a map which shows all the seas of the world and this map hangs in a fine house where charts and atlases and suchlike are kept for the knowledge of the masters of the fleet. Wallachia is in the map. A map is a picture drawn in ink which tells where things are so I am like a maker of maps when I write in my book, which has letters to show the receipts. As: “To make a Saracen sauce for eels: Take one pound of almonds andmix them fine and one ounce of cloves, ginger, cinnamon, galangal, nutmeg, cardamom,grains of paradise and put it to the same of verjuice and it will be nice and taste both sour andsweet.” I do not write of when the eels slide from the basket and swim across the flagstonesfor my book is to be well tempered and not to speak of chasing naughty fishes with the cleaver.
When my master’s ship that was full of amber was lost he said that his youngest daughter should go to the convent if it came safe to the basin of San Marco else the family would be ruined. And it did come back and my master had me prepare lasagne with walnuts and sugar and a great pasty of quails well flavoured with long pepper and we were not ruined but Lucia said she had prayed to San Nicolo that the ship would founder and that was wicked, for the men should be drowned in the shurling waves or eaten by vast whales. And now we are punished for I prayed to San Nicolo too, that Lucia should not be taken from me.
She is fifteen but I remember when she was small enough to sit in a pipkin. She must go on her name day. Lucia’s voice is sweeter and more supple than a lute’s string and the holy sisters will be glad of her for they sing all day to the glory of God and the deliverance of the world from sin. Also she can write in Latin and the Venetian language as she learned from the hornbook, but they will cover her in black and I will never see her again. I told her that the church is very fine and that perhaps I can walk out of my way to stand beneath the walls and listen for her voice amongst the other good sisters but she said “Zizola you do not like itany more than I so do not pretend.” Zizola is my name. It is a name in the Venetian language and it means “nothing”. It was the first word Lucia taught me to write. And now I will put my book in the ash can.
7 October: Santa Giustina
Sant’Erasmo is an island in the part of the lagoon where the sun rises. It has many gardens and vineyards where fruits and suchlike are grown for the markets of Venice. As: garlic, cabbage sprouts, leeks, quinces, lemons, pears, turnips, pumpkins and fava beans, also pomegranates. Many boats go there from the city and also to the mainland, so that sometimes the wide lagoon is full of small sails, red and orange like a table set with good jellies.
8 October: Santa Pelagia
A marvellous receipt for bruises on the skin: “Take sage and comfrey leaves as many as will cover your hand and pound them in a mortar and set them to the fire with the same of sweet yellow wine. When it is all cool put to a poultice and the skin will come fresh and not break”.
My master beat Lucia and locked her in the log cellar for saying that she will not go to the sisters on her name day if he drags her through the Piazza by her hair. He did not like to do it, for my master is a kind and godly man, but he said he must keep his promise as his ship hadcome back.
I am forty years old and I have lived all my life in this kitchen in the part of Venice which is called San Polo, next the crooked bridge. My master is a widower, his wife dying of Lucia as my mother did of me. I have no children, since my master has never used me as he might. Also no other man has used me as the fine is 25 zecchini to get a slave with child and fifty if she dies in bed of it, for dismembering of property.
While Lucia was in the cellar a merchant from Rome called to see my master and said he would pay three hundred gold pieces for me to go to Rome to be his cook for he had heard that I was the finest cook in the city as everyone says from Rialto to San Pietro. My master said:
“Do not worry Zizola, I will not sell you out of the family. Your home is here.”
A fisherman could not earn three hundred gold pieces in ten lifetimes. I did not say anything to my master and I did not tell him about my book that I hide in the ash can.
At the Compline bell Lucia came from the cellar and I took her some candied peaches which I had boiled in honey and sweet spices and hung in a lattice well lined with bay leaves. The lattice must be wrapped in muslin and swung on a trivet over the canal, else the flies will get in. I told her that several boatmen go from Sant’Erasmo to the mainland with medlars and sloes and such at this time of the year. A boatman might take a person too. A boatman might take a person marvellous quiet, for a price. Lucia said that was all very well but she was as poor as a stone, being a daughter and having no money of her own. I told about the merchant from Rome and my book in which I write in the Venetian language.
In the night Lucia came down to my bedplace in the kitchen and whispered in my ear to show her the book.
“This is not a book”, said Lucia, “This is a ragmop.”
Having no parchments or pen I had thus made my book from odds of cheesecloths and such like and scratched my letters with soot and spit.
“I will take parchment from the clerk’s room and you will copy the book with my pen”, said Lucia.
I said, “If they find me with parchment they will hang me for a thief.”
So I thought on my body swinging like a crow’s between the columns in the Piazza, next San Teodoro and his long beast which is called a crocodile. Then I thought on when Lucia was a tiny thing and would pick posies of the marguerites that push towards the sunlight between the stones of the waterdoor and twist the petals into a crown to put in my hair all skewed. She played that they were pearls. The sisters have gold candlesticks and bowls of coloured glass but I do not believe that flowers grow within their walls.
“I will do it” I said.
Next day I told the maids I was sick with the quartain fever, which was a lie. Lucia brought the things, as: sheets of parchment as long as a short bream fish, ink, pen, nibs, a knife for cutting and sand. The sand to keep the ink in place else it scuttle abroad like crayfish from the oil pan. I boiled a pitcher of aniseed water, taking it to the still room where I stayed in a sack to do the writing. If anyone came near I groaned loud that the fever was heavy so that they should not come close and see. Writing is a slow occupation and the still room was potent cold.
In four days my new book was made.
13 October: San Gennaro
I found Lucia at spinning and showed the book in my pocket.
“It has no name”, she said. “Books have a name, like maps, which show the master who
“Zizola means nothing”, I said. “Only a dizzy and foolish person would want a book by no-one.”
We looked together at the empty part where the name should be.
“There is no time” said Lucia. “The merchant will be gone. Give me your shawl.”
My brave girl has never once left her father’s house alone. It is nearly Vespers and soon it will be night and she is gone to the wooden bridge at Rialto. I will put this my new book under the lobster basket for I do not believe the ash can is any longer a good place to hide. A nice tart: take as much paste as covers the dish and the flesh of two fat capons which you have boiled and carved. Put with white cheese fat and fresh, six eggs, dates, raisins, one ounce of ginger and half an ounce of saffron, pine nuts, cover again with paste and serve with black and strong sauce, which will be good and a good tart. A little juice of poppy in the sauce will set your master to sleeping after suppertime and thus the street door may stay ajar.
Lucia returned from the market with my shawl full of coins. She piled them up in a toweras high as my knee and knocked it down in my lap and laughed. The merchant said he would sell the book to a cardinal’s kitchen in Rome. He took his own pen and made a name for it. He wrote it thus: anonumus, which is a Greek word meaning nameless in that language.There are islands in the Greek sea, Lucia said, like Chios where my mother was sold but others and numerous and the sea there is warm.
“We will see them all”, Lucia said.
There was no lamp in the kitchen in case the maids should wake. Her hand is longer than mine now, but I remembered when it patted at my face, puffy as new bread. In the embers’ light I put her fingers to the etchings in my cheeks.
“You will see them for me”, I said. “I am a slave, little love. See? My skin is a map and it will always lead them to you. I shall stay here.”
17 October: San Ignazio
To make magnificent fritters: take elderflowers or fennel bulb flowers in the season. Dip them in milk and white flour and set half a pan of strained grease. A walnut with holes in the shell set by the stove will take off the smell of smoke. Fry the flowers quickly and powder well with sugar and potent spices. The flowers must not be harvested at night time and then the fritters will be well browned and wholesome.
I took my basket for picking fennel and Lucia rode in the boat with me to Sant’Erasmo while the moon was setting behind the bell tower in the Piazza.
“We will walk along the water to gather samphire”, I said to my master’s boatman.
Lucia had one coin in her pocket and the others sewn into her sleeves. I knelt with my fingers in the soft mud at the shoreline and began to fill my basket. For a long time I did not look up. When the dawn came the valleys in the water were clear and smooth. I saw a boat which is called a bragozzo with two masts and three figures inside. Two had funnel caps such as the fishermen of Chioggia wear. One raised a hand to me and the sleeve fell plumb like an anchor line so I knew it was Lucia. After Chioggia a boat may sail down the spine of the world to the seas of Greece as written in the maps. I made a prayer to San Nicolo then that she should always come safe to land.
13 December: Santa Lucia
A wonderfully good porridge for Santa Lucia’s day: Take a pound of boiled wheat and half a pound of fresh and fat ricotta which should be very white like snow and boil it with honey and berries which you have made into a compost and mix it well and put two ounces of sharp spices and this will be very good.
I would pity my master but he thought never to see his daughter more in this life and so I think the manner of it matters not. This porridge I will eat alone for my master keeps his room. I think it will taste both sour and sweet.
The first cook book of Italian recipes in the vernacular is “Libro del Cuoco” (“Book of
Cook”), written in Veneziano in the 1340s, when Venice’s population of slaves from the
Black Sea numbered approximately 2000 people. A nineteenth century editor decided its
author was a man: “anonimo veneziano”, but there is no reason at all to believe that
anonimo was not anonima.