Five years ago, the Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s most august linguistic authority, admitted a new word to the language- petaloso. It was invented by Mateo, an eight -year- old boy from Ferrara who made a mistake in a grammar test. Petaloso might translate as perfumed and petal-y, and it’s exactly the right adjective for Venice in the first days of spring. It’s easy to forget that this watery city is also a place of hidden gardens, of wisteria-knotted pomegranate trees and deliquescing jasmine. Seen from the air, Venice is astonishingly green. In the mid-sixteenth century the historian Francesco Sansovino enumerated 192 private gardens in the city, not counting orchards, public spaces or the grounds of monasteries and convents. Today, the best -known garden is the Giardini which houses the pavilions of the Biennale, but the city is full of enticingly petaloso secrets. In the ancient working-class neighbourhood of San Basilio, old ladies still grow strawberries in flat-sided cones against the walls of their houses, orange and lemon trees cluster on balconies and somewhere deep in the canals of San Polo, on a rio barely wide enough for a single gondola, is a hidden pleasure garden, accessed only by a bridge three-stories up from the palazzo on the bank.
The Royal Gardens near San Marco have (finally) been restored, and they’re pretty enough, if a bit municipal, but over in Canareggio it’s still possible to see one of Venice’s most enchanting gardens, at the Villa Rizzo Patarol, now the Grand Hotel dei Dogi (photo below). The garden was designed in the sixteenth century by Lorenzo Patarol, a botanist whose exquisite herbarium can be seen on request on the top floor of the Natural History Museum. Patarol planted over 600 species of rare trees, eighty types of rose, many of which were found nowhere else in Italy, rare bulbs and exotic shrubs. Sadly, many of the plants were removed when the garden was remodelled in the romantic “English” style in the nineteenth century, but it’s worth going to the hotel for a coffee or a drink to see this improbably huge green space, which opens onto a great sweep of lagoon.
According to Sansovino, the most petaloso district of Venice was once Giudecca. The island nowadays has a distinctly industrial air- it was the place of boatyards and mills, brick and tobacco factories, but in the medieval period many of Venice’s great families- the Vendramin, Loredan, Gritti, Morosino, Trevisan, built summer houses there, escaping over the water from the crowded calle of the centre to a “lush and sunny landscape” (it sounds better in Italian- “assolato e lussureggiante”). Giudecca was famous for the heady perfumes of mimosa, passion flower, rose, jasmine, citrus and pittosforo (rather unromantically the cheesewood plant, which nonetheless smells of an intoxicating mix of jasmine and honeysuckle).
In 1884, an Englishman, Frederick Eden, bought six acres of land on Giudecca from the convent of Santa Croce and transformed what had been an artichoke field into a spectacular flower garden. For a while it was so successful that the watergate was crowded every morning with boats from the city full of flower sellers buying for the markets, whilst fried blossoms, elderflower and orange, dipped in flour and sugar and swiftly signed in oil became a Giudecca speciality. Naturally enough it became known as the “Garden of Eden”, but like the original found itself plagued by sin. In 1908, Jean Cocteau visited Venice, where he bumped into an old school friend, Raymond Laurent, while both were out cruising. Laurent had just published a celebrated essay on Oscar Wilde, Cocteau had been adapting The Picture of Dorian Grey. Laurent had also been crossed in love by Wilde’s American nephew, one Longhorn H. Whistler. The end of the affair took place in Eden’s garden. Whistler obviously agreed with Wilde himself that “a life without love is like a sunless garden where the flowers are dead”, as at 2am on the 24th September he shot himself on the steps of the Salute church. (Apparently the Salute was very popular with suicides). His body was discovered by Wilde’s son, Vivian Holland. To round off this macabre carry-on, Cocteau dedicated two poems to Whistler, one of which is called Souvenir d’un soir d’automne au jardin Eaden. To put it kindly, Cocteau hadn’t quite hit his stride as a leader of the avant-garde; the poem is hilariously Victorian, maudlin and sentimental- “How sad it was, the garden…Exquisitely fatal garden/ Rosebushed sepulchre”. In 1923, the garden was sold to the widowed Queen of Greece, who left it to her daughter, who promptly went mad.
The terrace of one of Giudecca’s best restaurants, Trattoria Altanella, founded in 1899, is a splendid place from which to see the entrance of what Giudeccans still call “The Queen’s Garden”, yet despite being officially public property, the gates are barred. You can, however, climb in from the other side. Not that we encourage delinquent behaviour, but we should confess that the dried roses in our sea bass carpaccio below might have been slightly filched from the blooms overhanging the garden wall of the Palazzo Malipiero on the Grand Canal. You can see the garden from the number one vaporetto, and there are few more joyously petaloso experiences on a spring evening. Hopefully, the perfumes in this week’s flower-inspired recipes will bring the scent of a Venetian spring to your kitchens.
The first asparagus have just arrived in Venice, travelling up the peninsula from Sicily. Depending how flowery you’re feeling, you could go all out and make elderflower vinegar and fresh mayonnaise, or if getting your hands on some green spears feels like achievement enough, stir bought cordial and vinegar into good quality mayo for a speedy version. The combination is surprising but each ingredient really enhances the flavour of the other- a lovely pairing. Similarly the rose petals in the sea-bass carpaccio are delightful but not vital. Plus, drying your own risks death by smugness, so if they are a faff to get, they can be left out or switched with dried strawberries. Either way, it’s the pairing that works again here- the fruit and floral enhancing the creamy purity of the fish. There’s nothing ethereal about the cake- it’s defiantly squodgy, for eating in fat slices with a mug of tea, but the tinned-peach-orange combination is retro-easy and the brown sugar gives a chewy, caramel crust.
500 ml/17 fluid oz vinegar (eg white wine, cider or rice wine vinegar)
4 heads of fresh elderflower (If you can pick them on a sunny day they are supposed to have more flavour. Sorry in advance to our British readers)
Debug but try not to wash the elderflower heads (it will be sieved later) and place in a mason jar covered with vinegar. Leave up to two weeks and then sieve the liquid to remove the elderflower heads. It will keep if conserved correctly for easily a month. It will make a brilliant vinaigrette.
ASPARAGUS AND ELDERFLOWER MAYONAISE
Although Asparagus has only just arrived in south Italy we are waiting expectantly here in the north with recipes ready to go.
Serves 4 people
20 Thick Asparagus (Trimmed of woody ends and bases peeled)
300 ml Sunflower oil (you can use olive oil but I find this makes it slightly heavier)
1 egg yolk (reserve the egg white)
Salt and pepper
Elderflower Vinegar (See recipe above) or 1 tablespoon elderflower cordial + 1 1/2 Tbsp White wine vinegar
Fresh oregano or lemon thyme
Method Break the egg yolk into a bowl and add a pinch of salt and pepper. Begin whisking and then add drop by drop (literally) the sunflower oil, beating in each addition of oil before adding the next. When the mixture starts to thicken, the oil can be added a little more liberally, but never more than about a tablespoon at a time. When all the oil has been taken up, add more seasoning to taste and about 2 tablespoons of the elderflower-vinegar mix. Keep whisking. If you want to create something slightly lighter, you can try adding another egg white to the first one and whisk this in a clean bowl until you get just stiff peaks. Gently fold this into the mayonnaise mixture and this is called a Mousseline.
Asparagus; After having trimmed and peeled (if necessary) the asparagus, use a steamer or a tall pot that you can add a small amount of water too. Bring to a boil and steam the asparagus until just tender but still with a crunch. About 3-4 mins. Shock in an ice bath if you are not planning to eat them straight away. Otherwise, you can slow roast them in the oven, or pan-fry them with olive oil and salt.
SEA BASS CARPACCIO with STRAWBERRY and ROSE VINAIGRETTE
Again, we are going to have to wait for the best strawberries to arrive. But this is a reliably delicious, uncomplicated summer starter that you can play around with different fruits and even on crostini.
Serves 4 as a starter
1 Fresh Sea Bass, cleaned, filleted and skin off. (Alternatively sea bream, cod or any other white fish with not too many spindly bones)
300 grams strawberries sliced or diced
A small handful of rose petals
1 Shallot finely chopped
1/4 tsp Salt
1 tsp of runny honey
1 tsp of sherry vinegar (white wine or apple cider vinegar is ok also)
2 tbsp of olive oil
First of all, prepare the fish or ask your fishmonger to do so. Check for any bones, you can run your finger gently along it to find them and remove them using tweezers. Then lay the two fillets slightly overlapping on one sheet of baking paper and then lay another sheet over the top. Take a rolling pin and gently hit, you do not want to ruin all the structure so it is best to do this from room temperature when the fish is fresh, you should be able to roll it with a firm hand. The aim is to achieve slithers of sea bass that will be your carpaccio. Once it is sufficiently thin roll up the baking sheets with the fish still inside and store in the fridge until ready to serve.
In the meantime prepare the sauce. Take all the ingredients including the strawberries and mix together, you can adjust to your own taste but make sure the rose petals have time to steep. If you don’t have vinegar, lemon juice works very well. To serve roll out the carpaccio again, arrange it on each plate and drizzle over the rose-strawberry vinaigrette. Sprinkle with more rose petals, torn mint and lemon zest if you feel like it.
Drying your own rose petals
- is very doable but you need a bit of patience. Make sure when choosing the flowers themselves they haven’t been treated with chemicals. Heirloom varietals are broadly thought to have better flavour and fragrance, with newer roses often bred for appearance rather than flavour. All you need to do is take the petals and lay them out on a baking sheet, not overly crowded or in direct sunlight. Turn them every day or so and let them dry over a week.
PEACH AND ORANGE FLOWER LOAF CAKE
Serves- well, we ate one in a single afternoon!
180g butter, softened
200g self-raising flour
180g brown sugar
15g baking powder
1 200g tin of peaches (rinse any juice or syrup off)
2 tbsp orange flower water
2 tsp cinnamon
grated zest 1 medium orange
40g walnuts (or pistachios if liked)
Heat the oven to 160c. Prepare a loaf tin by buttering the sides and lining with baking paper. Put the butter, eggs and milk in a bowl and beat until smooth-ish. Add the flower water, sugar, flour, cinnamon, zest and baking powder and continue beating. When you have a thick batter, stir in the peaches, roughly chopped and the nuts and scrape into the tin. Bake for 45 minutes, then test with a sharp knife- if it comes out clean the cake is done, if not, stick it back in the oven for 10 minutes. Don’t be alarmed by the dark colour of the crust, it’s not burned, it’s just the brown sugar.