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Polishing Up for Spring
“Those ancients who in poetry presented the golden age, who sang its happy state, perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place. Here, mankind's root was innocent; and here were every fruit and never-ending spring; these streams--the nectar of which poets sing.”
On one of the first blue and gold mornings of the spring, when the air is full of the perfume of jasmine and wisteria and the delicate pink haze of the affa, the early mist, is rising from the lagoon, Dante might well have been describing Venice. Yet the scent that really tells Venetians that spring is here is rather more prosaic- varnish. In one of those strange temporal tom-toms where every Venetian seems to instinctively know that a seasonal activity must be performed, Sunday was boat-readying day. May is here and the young men of Venice are going courting.
Pompeo Molmenti’s 1882 history, “Vie Privee a Venise” gives an account of the aquatic mating rituals of the locals along the Grand Canal:
“The patricians were often accompanied by their housemaids, and they exchanged with the gentlemen, who followed them on another gondola, with winks and of smiles, tying intrigues of love on this unique "street" of the world, between palaces of brown marble, water and the sky in smiling colors.
At night, serenades went through the Grand Canal, and they saw smart feminine faces taking shape on the luminous balconies.”
The boats have changed, but not much else. This weekend the cantiere (boatyards) were full of teenage boys waxing and polishing, spiffing up their boats with all the love and attention they usually give to their hair. Whilst for most young Italians the scooter is a rite of passage, for obvious reasons in Venice it’s a snazzy boat. Legally, to drive anything with more than 9.9 horsepower you are required to register your boat with the commune and obtain a targa, or numberplate. The boys get round this by pimping the engines like the Milanese do with their Vespas, so that they can reach alarming speeds as they bounce across the lagoon. Add a whomping stereo system and a set of fancy cushions (camouflage print is popular, probably run up by granny) and your passion wagon is ready for her maiden voyage.
Stage One: Races between competing males on the longest stretches of water, the Giudecca or Fondamenta Nuova canals. This is a stupid and potentially deadly activity as the reverberations as the boats crash-land over the waves can throw the drivers into the water or indeed the engine. Obviously this is why they do it.
Stage Two: Cruise past the waterside bars at Fondamenta Misericordia or Rialto to be admired by girls. Execute a few nifty moves such as doughnutting around passing vaporetti. Possibly receive a caution from the police or a disapproving paragraph in the Gazettino.
Stage Three: Take girls for a trip between the Lido and the pizzeria at the tip of Sant’Erasmo (no dice in romantically meandering through the ancient canals by night, this is all about speed).
Mission accomplished when partners have selected one another for “una storia d’estate”, a summer romance. Steps Two and Three are then repeated daily as above until September, all parties in swimwear.
This week’s recipes are not quite as exciting as being whizzed around the lagoon by a bequiffed Casanova, but they are the nearest we’re going to get to being fresh and sprightly.
Prep 10 min
Cook 35 min but best left to rest for an hour or two
4 strips Smoked pancetta or back bacon, cut into small cubes
8 small salad onions, or small round shallots
60 gr butter, at room temperature
1/2 cabbage, separated in large wedges
400g frozen garden peas, defrosted and drained, or 1kg fresh young peas in their pods, shelled
1/2 stale loaf
75ml white wine or Madeira
40ml chicken stock
Handful of mint leaves
Olive oil 4 tbsp
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1/4 tsp sugar (optional)
Pinch of salt
Trim the salad onions and, if the bulbs are very large, cut them in half. Melt a generous knob of butter and a splash of olive oil in a heavy-based pan. Then saute the onions and bacon slowly without browning. After a few minutes add the cabbage, Madeira and water and cook slowly until the smell of alcohol has disappeared, then cover with a lid and cook for 20 minutes. Just before the end add the peas and stale bread. Season to taste and serve warm.
Turn heat off with the lid still on.
Whilst waiting for this, prepare the mint sauce.
Slice mint finely then lightly crush in a small bowl before adding the vinegar, olive oil, a pinch of sugar and salt. Stir and adjust to taste.
Serve the panzanella with the drizzled mint sauce and all the liquid.
Smoked Haddock and Watercress Tart
This is not actually our recipe but one that I was made by father who got it from a brilliant book called ‘The Art of the Tart’ (cunning name, right?).
This is not strictly speaking a quiche, coronation or otherwise, but it was too good not to include.
1 beaten egg for brushing
325g undyed smoked haddock
300ml milk or dairy alternative (I promise this works well and is actually slightly lighter in texture and a little sweeter so adjust seasoning accordingly if using)
1 bay leaf
5 pepper corns
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
30g plain flour
A grating of nutmeg
a bunch of Watercress or Spinach, stalks removed, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 190 C/gas mark 5. Roll the pastry in a 22cm case, bake blind for 10 minutes, then remove the baking beans, prick the base with a fork and brush with beaten egg. Return to the oven for 5 more minutes.
Put the haddock, milk bay leaf and pepper corns in a saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Remove and skin the fish and flake into a bowl. Reserve the milk separately.
Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the onion and celery and cook gently, until softened. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then add the reserved poaching milk and stir until the sauce has thickened. Season with a little salt, pepper and the grated nutmeg. Remove from the heat and stir into the fish, adding the watercress and beaten eggs.
Pour into the pastry case and sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan. Bake for 25 minutes, when the tart will have risen and be crusted a delectable golden brown. Leave to cool slightly before turning out and eating hot.