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Night of the Chewing Dead
Venice's Shroud Eaters
Tempting though it is, we stuck a politician on last year’s Hallowe’en newsletter, so there’ll be no Meloni gags this week. The weather has been unco-operative too- a week of sublime golden sun has seen all the beach bars on the Lido reopen for a last hurrah. Delightful, but as lovers of Hallowe’en we were really hoping for a bit of mist and mellow spookiness. Then we began to discover the tiny corpses of decapitated bats in the courtyard…
The Veneto Friuli region is home to a surprising variety of bats- thirty different types of Chiroptera in fact- and Venice is a particularly bat friendly city. So many vacant belfries and delicious mosquitoes. In the seventeenth century however, bats were captured and slaughtered in their thousands, as Venice was gripped by a wave of supernatural hysteria. Following the terrible attack of bubonic plague in 1630, which gave rise to the building of the Salute church, the already- depleted population of Venice began suddenly dropping dead in the street, with no obvious symptoms. These apparently inexplicable deaths affected victims at every social level, from fishermen to senators. The Shroud Eaters had struck.
Shroud Eaters are one of the origin stories for the identification of vampires with bats in Balkan folklore. They could kill from their coffins, using night flying creatures as mediums to absorb the energies of their victims, who would abruptly fall dead. When suspect corpses were disinterred, Shroud Eaters were found to have munched through their grave clothes, their faces and hands stained with their victims’ transubstantiated blood.
The quarantine islands of the Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo had been used for mass graves during the plague. When the authorities had certain corpses exhumed, they were identified as Shroud Eaters. The bodies were re-buried with stones wedged between their jaws to prevent their undead feasting, and meantime the Venetians killed as many bats as they could trap.
The rational explanation for the Shroud Eating phenomenon is as grisly as the supernatural one. Bubonic plague can manifest as pneumonic, that is, causing respiratory failure and death within days of infection with no other obvious signs. Hence the corpses on the canals. The Shroud Eaters meanwhile, tumbled into plague pits before they were fully dead, were desperately trying to claw their way to the surface… The innocent bats were collateral damage.
(Lisa writes- the rational explanation for the headless bat in the courtyard was the Sugar Street cat. Remains of skulls with bricks in between their teeth have in fact been excavated on the Lazzaretti, whilst the frescoes at the Bat Bar in the Hotel Ai Cavalieri near Rialto still commemorate the 1630 pandemic panic, with the stucco victims picked out in gold on the ceiling. Happy Hallowe’en).
Black Death Rice with Squid, Mussels and Romesco Sauce
Anna writes- This orange and black combo is an obvious choice for the spooky season, but I am purposefully not calling this squid ink risotto, because it is cooked in such an utterly different way. This blasphemy was attempted partly out of curiosity and partly because my scattered mood was not hankering after the methodical motion of risotto. This is dish is not much quicker than risotto, but it is much less hands on.
I like to add a lot of paprika to my sauce but that is up to you. The Romesco can be made well in advance and kept in the fridge and if you prep the other ingredients early, this comes together very quickly on the stove.
450gr arborio rice (this is what I had available)
3 squid, with ink sack
1 tsp of concentrated tomato paste
1 plum tomato
1 large onion
1.7 ltr stock, preferably fish
1/2 cup white wine if using
10 gr parsley chopped
Salt and pepper
15 large mussels
4 garlic cloves
generous splash of white wine
3 medium red peppers
2 large plum tomatoes
6 garlic cloves
200 gr walnuts
1/2 tsp sherry vinegar to taste
salt and pepper
Start by blistering your peppers. Turn the oven up to 190c and on a lined baking tray line half peppers and half tomatoes. Lie your peppers cut side down with unpeeled garlic hidden underneath. Drizzle with oil and forget about for 35 minutes.
In the meantime, remove the ink sack from your squid, or ask your fishmonger to do it for you. Add this to the stock liquid. Slice the meat of the squid into strips 1cm wide and save for later.
Finely chop up your onion and add this to a pan with olive oil, stir until translucent then add your garlic, sage leaf and tomato paste. Stir well until darkened and then add your tomato, followed by wine (if using). Stir this all for another 2 minutes then add the stock, rice, squid and parsley. Bring to the boil. Once boiling you can turn the heat to low and let simmer for 20 minutes. Do not stir apart from to move the rice very occasionally on the bottom. Turn off. Your rice and squid are done.
To prepare the mussels, first clean them of their beards and then put to one side. To a pan add 4 cloves of garlic, and start to pan fry in oil then add the mussels and a generous swig of white wine before covering with a lid and watching to see when the mussels are all open. Switch off and leave to one side, reserving the juices.
Once the peppers and tomatoes are very nearly finished, add the walnuts to the pan and quickly toast them. Take everything out and add it all to a blender, making sure to remove the skin of the garlic. Add a splash of sherry vinegar, olive oil and a 1/2 tsp of smoked paprika.
Aubergine Road Kill
For this particular post I did not attempt to neaten the ‘corpses’ up but I do think they can actually look quite delicious as well as tasting so. This is a very simple but novel way of serving another vegetable whilst capturing some of the best flavour of aubergine.
It is actually called Tortang Talong, a sort of aubergine “omelette”. This is a great easy dinner or picnic lunch.
4 finger aubergines
pinch of salt
Start by smoking the aubergines as you would for Babaganoush, if you have a gas stove, otherwise cook them in the oven on high heat until charred all over.
Then leave in a bowl covered with cling film. Be careful to keep the stem attached at all times.
After about 20 minutes, or even better when they have cooled completely, begin to peel off the charred skin, trying to leave as much ‘meat’ intact as possible.
When you have done all four, take one and press it lightly between two sheets of baking paper. The aim is to flatten the cooked aubergine but not break it.
Prepare a bowl with one egg and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Add the aubergine and turn delicately, then transfer everything, egg mix an auberggine to a preheated oiled pan. cook for about 1 minute on each side. Continue with the rest, and serve hot or cold.