Snuggling in a corner of the sumptuous draperies of Tintoretto’s Adorazione dei Magi is a cheerful, homely little detail- a rabbit. Tintoretto’s art captures a particular immediacy of Venetian life which doesn’t so much sing down the centuries as swear extravagantly in thick venezian. Switch out the costumes and you see Tintoretto people everywhere- queueing in the supermarket, crowding the outer deck of the vaporetto- the same faces that “Il Furioso” dashed onto ceilings and altarpieces all over the city. The characters who tumble through his painting are not solemn Biblical abstractions, but the crowds he saw every day, and one of their delights is the insight they give into every aspect of sixteenth-century Venetian life; interiors, household objects, and food.
Rabbit was and is popular in Venice. It was part of the mainland staples that the first settlers brought across the lagoon, and bunnies could be easily reared in urban captivity. Along with chicken, rabbit forms part of a cucina di cortile (courtyard cookery) in which the flavours of the plains and hills of the Veneto survive. The Due Gondolette trattoria in Canareggio serves a fabulous ragu di cortile of poultry and rabbit spiked with rosemary, whilst the recipes of the nearby Ghetto often use chicken with pasta. In 1931, the first Jewish cookbook was published in Italian, a celebration of the “hidden poetry” of Italian Jewish food. Frizinsal is a Ghetto dish which combines the ancient Venetian ingredients of raisins and pine nuts with noodles and little sausages made of chicken “from the courtyard”, a recipe which gleefully celebrates the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.
The frugality of courtyard cooking ties in with another favourite Venetian hobby-foraging. It’s a vogueish term now, but the Venetians have just been getting on with it for centuries, waiting for the Michelin Guide to catch up. In summertime, on the lagoon sandbanks near the enchanted monastery island of San Francesco del Deserto whole families- from Slim Aarons teenagers to robust elderly gentlemen sporting the mini -Speedos that only Venetians can pull off with dignity- draw up their boats to sift for slender razor clams. Over on Lido, shellfish are gathered every morning along the tideline, though the Lidense obviously know something we don’t, as the only time we tried a sauce made from our lovingly gathered molluscs it was like eating sandy phlegm.
Because foraging might tick all the boxes: local, virtuous, charmingly rustic, but there’s more to it than looking winsome with a straw basket. Our rabbit recipes here call for wild garlic, which can be found in season in the wild east of the Lido, in the woods near the Art-Deco Nicelli airport. Venetians love a free lunch, true, but they also love their dogs and under-exercised Labrador urine is not an appealing condiment. Occasionally it can be found in the more sanitary form at the Rialto market, which is also stocked year-round with another scavenger’s staple, wild greens.
One of the most satisfyingly “Venetian” breakfasts we ever enjoyed was way down the Adriatic in Montenegro, on the Bay of Kotor (see photo below). The Venetians walled this city in the fifteenth century and it remained part of their territories until the fall of the Republic. Saint Mark’s lion is everywhere, and on a hot morning the white-cobbled alleyways gleam like canals. The sea-scent is there, and the crowds of tourists dressed for adventure, and the languor of a place that’s seen it all and might again. A treacly coffee and a warm slice of filo pastry bursting with greens and ricotta studded with fennel was pure Venice preserved.
This dish- pastry, cheese and leaves, might have had its origins in Central Asia, from where it spread to Croatia and Romania, North Africa and Israel. In Turkey it’s burek, in Greece spanakopita, but the essence is the same. (Not that this hasn’t inspired some serious scholarly bickering- those wishing to take sides on the question of its origin might wish to consult a published PhD thesis from the University of NoraGorica on “meta-burek”).
Torta salata (salty/savoury tart) is found all over Italy too, splendidly in Genoa in the torta pasqualina with whole eggs and artichoke hearts and dismally in the spinach and ricotta puddles sold at our supermarket in Dorsoduro. Many independent bakeries in Venice make more satisfactory versions, and when we found ourselves with some filo pastry that, like most of us, had seen better days, we thought we’d recreate our Kotor revelation using bietole. (Though we bought it from the vegetable boat rather than picking it in the campo).
Pumpkin, Rabbit and Marsala Stew + Nextday Recovery Food of the Hunting Gods
This would be more traditionally Venetian served with wet polenta, but we’ve yet to find a version we can get really excited about. The surprisingly rich sauce, with the warming chilli coming through at the end, deserves something to soak it up, and we enjoy serving it with thick yellow fresh pappardelle dressed liberally in melted butter and sprinkled with poppy seeds, but it would also be delicious with mashed potatoes, or for a lighter service, with long-stemmed broccoli or perhaps a sparse, bitter salad of radicchio or chicory dressed with a little oil and lemon.
Cooking time 1hr
Active time 15-20 mins
200 gr cubed pumpkin
300 gr Rabbit (buy a whole rabbit if you can, to enjoy the second recipe the next day)
1 tsp of cumin seeds
2 celery stalks (1 finely chopped, 1 whole)
2 carrots (1 finely chopped, 1 whole)
2 shallots finely chopped
1 onion (halved)
2 sprigs of thyme
2 sage leaves
1/2 tsp of peperoncino- dried chilli flakes (or more if liked)
1 cup marsala (1/2 for stock and 1/2 with pumpkin stew)
1/2 cup (cheap) white wine
1 cup of stock
If you remember to it is always a good idea to marinate rabbit in wine overnight or a few hours beforehand. It helps soften the meat and also adds a subtle flavour that slightly softens the gaminess-a good tip if you are trying to introduce a picky eater to the joys of this lean meat. However, never fear, the rabbit does not have an overpoweringly gamey flavour either way.
It is best to prepare everything before you start because you do want the vegetables to be finely chopped and you don’t want to be in a rush. So here goes.. dice the shallots, carrots (skin on) and celery and cube the pumpkin. Take the meat off the bones of the rabbit and slice to roughly the same size as the pumpkin Set this aside as you bring a litre of water to the boil, adding the other carrot, celery and pumpkin skin to the stock also any leftover bones you have from the rabbit. Add some salt, marsala and onion sliced in half. Let this simmer away.
In another medium-sized pan on medium heat, add a small amount of olive oil followed by the pancetta. Let this release its fat and then add the rabbit, stirring occasionally. (If you are using a whole rabbit, remove any white membrane from the kidneys and add this, chopped to the stew for more depth).
Colour this slightly then add the soffrito (celery, carrot and shallot) plus thyme, sage, cumin seeds, chilli flakes and a small pinch of salt ( you might want to adjust the seasoning later but remember that the pancetta is already salty) Turn the heat slightly down and stir constantly, making the onions start to become translucent (the finer you have sliced them the quicker this will be). Take your time however, each stage adds complex flavours. Add the marsala, wine and stock and stir gently. Then turn the heat down and cover with a lid for 35-40 minutes.
This is a really lovely, warming dish, with plenty of levels of flavour and a wonderful golden colour, which lift the spirits on winter days. If, however, you have already lifted your spirits the night before, you will definitely want to try the next recipe, which contains a sneaky hair of the dog in a restorative broth.
Rabbit Broth- for when last night’s wine wasn’t as good as it pretended to be…
Additional Ingredient: Wild Garlic/ rocket/ any wild greens you can get your hands on
Once you have used your broth for the first recipe you can reserve the recipe for an equally delicious if a little more puritanical recipe the next day. Collect together any bones leftover and/or extra meat and add this to the broth, leaving it all on a low heat covered for an hour. Switching off the heat after hour, let the meat fully cool in the broth. Next day carefully take off the layer of fat which will have formed and strain the vegetables and meat out of the broth. Bring back to the heat and prepare the bowls. Add wild garlic/rocket/ chard leaves or other wild greens of the season and a tablespoon full of Marsala straight from the bottle, then pour over the piping hot stock, enjoy.
Savoury Kotor Strudel
Serves 4-6 (though will keep well for slicing in the fridge)
Cooking time 1 hour
Active time 20 mins
500g Greens (you could use spinach, bietole (chard) or a mixture)
2 cloves garlic
1 small onion
1 glass white wine
Herbs: Dried or fresh dill essential-2 tsps
Oregano and dried/fresh Mint-2 tsps of either or both
Salt and pepper
1 pack ready-made filo pastry
Preheat the oven to 200c/392f. Set the greens to steam or if you haven’t got a steamer (in our case a precarious homemade tower of colanders and pans), place in a deep frying pan with a lid and a tablespoon of water over low heat to wilt. While the greens are cooking, chop the garlic and onion. Prepare an oven tray with a sheet of baking paper, melt the butter and brush the paper lightly, reserving the rest of the butter. By now the greens should be cooked and cool enough to handle. Squeeze out as much water as you can with your hands or squash through a sieve with a wooden spoon. Return the greens to the deep frying pan with a drop of the butter, add the onions and garlic and cook over medium heat. Add the white wine and the herbs, cook for a few minutes more, then break the eggs into the pan, stirring until they are just cooked. Season and set aside.
Take a sheet of filo, lay it in the baking tray and brush all over with butter. If you haven’t got a pastry brush, a small sponge or just your (clean) fingers will do. Repeat six times.
Break up the cheese and stir it into the mix of greens and egg. Scoop the mix in a fat sausage along the middle of the filo pastry.
Add two more sheets of filo as above, then carefully fold the long sides together and tuck in the ends. Brush with more butter to help it seal and then slide your hands underneath and turn it over so the seam side is down.
Cook in the oven for 10 mins, then turn the heat down to 170c/340f and continue cooking. Check after 20 mins, it should be a rich golden brown on top- if not continue another 10 minutes. All ovens vary and if you keep looking it won’t burn.
Remove and allow to cool a little before slicing. Delicious for breakfast with a stiff coffee or warmed through for lunch.