‘part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers’
Joseph Brodsky, Watermark
This well sums up the atmosphere and smell in Venice during winter. But I would add wine soaked wood as well as orange peel and smugness.
November and December are probably my favourite months, because although summer is wonderful and everyone is high spirited, it eventually becomes akin to a 5 years old’s birthday where everyone is exhausted, crammed with cake and running off sugary energy, bordering on tears. Whereas there is something lean (in theory) about winter that pleases my puritanical values. A period of chilled resilience that thins out the tourists and brings out the animalistic need to hibernate. Despite the damp air, smells seem to be heightened and you can walk around Venice solely led by your nose.
Historically this would have indeed been a period of fasting for many to enable themselves to feel more spiritual around this time. In reality, nowadays there is little to nothing actually lean about this time but the cold and early darkness makes me feel like I have done well to get to the end of the day. The condensation building up between your scarf and your mouth, the inability to do anything with gloves on and the inevitability that you will leave one of them limply on the vaporetto are all just part of the parcel. The plus side however, is that there is an even greater draw to the churches that usually seem too dark in summer. The candlelit cool corners and echoing silence is emphasised and alluring, bringing closer the feeling that nothing has changed for hundreds of years, which is never all that far off anyway in Venice.
One thing that the city does particularly well, with a few marked exceptions, is the lights. They start particularly early because of La Salute festivities at the end of November and they are just the right amount of twinkling wonder, especially when reflected off the water.
(I know this may be an unpopular opinion, but given we are going through an energy crisis, I can’t help but eye up the 300,000 led lights used this year in London and think there must be a better home for these).
The lights are draped along all the major thoroughfares but fearless individuals even scale icy ladders to balance them precariously over the canals.
My absolutely favourite however, is housed in the local gym on Zattere. They really go the extra mile. Never letting you fully forget Christmas all year round by having a fluorescent countdown clock in the lobby, followed by a steady ramping up of glitter as December approaches, complete with a working manger and a motion -sensored Christmas carolling system.
Whilst you wonder the sparkling streets looking for Christmas presents or just avoiding your emails, there is a tendency to wangle your way towards Rialto market. For once we actually have the time and the people to make delicious feasts for. Whilst you may think you would miss the frivolous fruits of spring, the hardy pumpkin, inky greens and perfumed clementines inspire richer menus. The smell of this is what we wanted to celebrate this week in the newsletter
As you wander across the bridges towards Rialto, hopefully not needing to elbow people in the ribs as is the way in summer, you will likely walk past the home of citrus, Naranzaria. Naranzaria, The word derives from the Sanskrit नारङ्ग (nāraṅga or nagrungo, meaning 'orange tree'. The Sanskrit word reached European Languages through Persian (nārang). Up until not that long ago this area was dedicated solely to the sale of citrus, and then vegetables in general. But imagine how wonderful the smell would have been. Sweet Oranges started to be imported into Italy as early as 15th century, but were still considered a luxury for the rich well into the 16th century.
You can still see if you look closely the engravings signalling the various growers’ stands that line the columns on the water side.
Unfortunately the most citrus you are going to find nowadays in this spot is an orange slice in a spritz. But towards the fish market you will find an abundance along with the other vegetables to complete your menu and drag, with frozen hands, back home.
Here are two recipes that highlight this orange scented season. The first is very much comfort food but with actual dynamism and the second is a hybrid biscuit that you can feel proud to take round to a friends or have in the freezer for emergencies.
Cavolo Nero, Orange, Speck and Hazelnut rigatoni
1 head of cavolo nero, washed and chopped into rough pieces
50 gr hazelnuts, toasted and chopped roughly
6 strips of speck, chopped
1 zest of orange
1 clove of garlic
dash of Marsala or white wine
1/2 tsp of chilli (optional)
This was a pasta that Lisa invented and the combination is just right. It is not a saucy pasta and nor should it be but it is one of those pastas that justifies having it three days in a row. The orange and roasted hazelnuts make it seem satisfyingly fresh and seasonal and the speck ties it all together.
In a large pan, fry off the speck and and garlic. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, just before adding the pasta, add your cavolo nero for no more than 3 minutes, drain and let the water leak out as you continue with the pasta. Throw the pasta in and cook for 8 minutes (or whatever the packet says). In the other pan, and the chopped hazelnuts, reserving a few, and the cavolo nero, with the wine or Marsala. Add another swig of olive oil and the chilli if using. Then drain the pasta and add it to the speck pan. Swirl everything together until it is well coated in the oil and finish with the grated orange zest. Stir this through rather than leaving it on the top so that it slightly cooks and coats everything.
Orange, Chilli and Ginger Chewy Biscuits
I am more inclined to say cookie for this recipe but I think the important factor is that we establish it is a chewy without being caky and crispy without being a ginger snap. This is a biscuit that I had been thinking about for a while, which is odd for me because I am not generally a sweets person.
Anyhow, it was inspired by an orange lace biscuit made a while ago but I wanted to have more substance.
The chilli is just enough to give it heat but almost indistinguishable from the ginger. This is a really great, reliable and portable biscuit that works well for gifting. Not necessarily to be dipped in milky tea because of the chilli and not too sweet that you can’t have more than one. Dancing just on the border between children and adults.
100gr white granulated sugar
120gr brown packed sugar
240gr plain flour (you can use gluten free)
1 large pinch of salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1.5 tsp ginger powder
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 tsp mixed spice
3-4 cardamom pods, seeds crushed
3 tsp crushed chilli flakes\
2 orange, zest
Extra step: you can toast the spices in a pan before mixing them with the rest of the ingredients, this was an idea I had afterwards, but it should make a small difference and it can’t hurt.
Beat the butter and sugar together until completely blender and slightly lighter. Then add the molasses and egg, mix well. Combine all the spices, followed by the siefted flour, baking powder and salt. Stir well until combined, don’t worry if it seems too soft the flour will absorb more and it is rested in the freezer.
Take the mix and roll either into one long log or two separate ones. Using cling film you can make a sausage shape closing both ends.
Leave it for min 25 minutes. (They can stay like this for up to 3 months, and it also means you can slice off however much you need).
Preheat oven to 180c
Take the dough from the freezer and slice off disks of about 3 cm. You may decide you like thicker or thinner, but this is what I tend to do.
On a lined baking sheet lay out the disks with enough space between them and bake for 10 minutes. They will still seem soft when they come out but just let them cool and they will be just right. Anylonger than this and you will not have the chewiness.
You can add extra flavours to the top or more sugar if you prefer.
On the Lido, trying to heat ourselves after a perilous bicycle ride that no one wants to take credit for.
Lovely!!! Marry Christmas to you!!!