Titians and Chickens
San Giovanni Elemosinario
January is one of the quietest months in Venice. Many restaurants and bars close for a long holiday, allowing their exhausted staff to escape to the sunshine (Brazil and Bali are this year’s top destinations for the waiters along the Zattere), whilst most Venetians leave the lagoon for the mountains. For those of us not possessed of a house in Cortina, this can be a wonderful moment to re-explore the city, whether the heavy-hitting sites usually crowded with tourists or more the more obscure delights neglected by the guidebooks.
The Magi are delivering their gifts but it’s all about the chickens above
For much of the year, the area on the San Polo side of Rialto Bridge is impossibly packed with pizza-munching day trippers, but in January the arcades are almost deserted; the perfect time to visit one of the more unusual Venetian churches, San Giovanni Elemosinario ( in Venezia San Zuane, St John the Charitable). Hidden away behind an iron gate, the church is open on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. Originally founded in the eleventh century by the Trevisan family, it became the seat of several of the Venetian guilds incorporated by the city from 1182 onwards. Divided into three main categories, victualling, manufacture and commerce, the guilds played a hugely important part in the economic life of the Republic, setting terms for trade and organising the charitable and religious lives of their members. San Giovanni was the seat of four such “confraternities”, the Rialto merchants, the porters, the “biavaroli” or flour and grain sellers and the “gallineri” who dealt in poultry, eggs and butter.
In January 1514, the whole island of Rialto was damaged by one of the most disastrous fires the city had ever suffered, and its reconstruction was given in charge to the architect Antonio Abbondi, who completed the reconstruction of the church in 1531. The chicken sellers celebrated with a frescoed arch by Domenico Tintoretto, The Eternal Father in Glory with Doge Marino Grimani, Dogaressa Morosina Morosini and brothers of the Scuola dei Pollaioli. Bearded and sombre in their black doublets and best starched collars, the poulterers look nervously proud to find themselves in such exalted company (God the Father’s armpit is disconcertingly close to their heads), but what makes this painting stand out in a church stuffed full of extraordinary works by Titian and da Palma, amongst many others, is exactly this recognisable humanity. These are real people, ordinary people who contributed their hard-earned savings to commemorate their pride in their profession. You almost hear their wives fussing over their linen and telling them to be sure to stand up straight; a few hundred metres and five centuries through the campo, their descendants can be seen tying up chickens at the banchi of the Rialto market. It’s nice to think that Tintoretto junior was giving the Pollaioli a visual joke when he made the dove of the Holy Spirit look so very much like a flustered chicken about to lay…
San Giovanni is a wonderful place to discover, but we resisted the temptation to do chicken recipes this week- partly because of hovering turkey phantoms and partly because these gently-braised roots and the combination of pomegranate, olive and walnuts felt to us much more like the dishes the Pollaioli might have enjoyed at this time of year (though either would be the perfect accompaniment to a plain roast chook).
I was first introduced to a version of this recipe by my brother about 4 years ago. It remember it so clearly, and despite it being truly delicious the only reason I can think of for it to have made such an impression on me was its simplicity. So often, and indeed the second recipe this week is an example of this, recipes are full of loud punchy flavours. Whereas this one really is almost delicate. The combination of thinly sliced earthy and sweet vegetables cooked in good stock is so simple but in my eyes, the epitome of unshowy elegance.
It also goes surprisingly well with the olives below, unconsciously discovered as we enjoyed it altogether over lunch. This was based on my brother’s iteration, which I think was based on the River Cottage version.
1 large potato
1 small swede
1/2 small celeriac
1 large uncooked beetroot
200ml milk, with two bay leaves
800ml of boiling water, with stock cube
Large amounts of thyme, leaves only
Option of using sage
Salt and Black pepper, butter and olive oil.
Peel the celeriac, potatoes, swede and beetroot (if using) and cut into thin slices, roughly about the size of 10pc piece. The celeriac can be tricky to cut into such small pieces but don’t worry about perfection, as thin as you can.
Then add the oil or butter to a heavy-bottomed frying pan and use some of it to grease a large gratin dish. Add the onions to the pan and sauté over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until nice and soft, then add the garlic and cook gently for a further minute or two.
Bring the milk to a low simmer with the bayleaves in it, and let this sit for 10 minutes. As you move onto the rest. Spread out the celeriac in the gratin dish, season generously with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with half the onions and half the herbs.
Layer the swede interlaced with the beetroot on top, then scatter the remaining onions and herbs on top and finish with a layer of potatoes.
Bring the stock to a simmer combine to the milk, removing the bay leaves, and add some salt and pepper, then pour over the vegetables to barely cover them (you may not need all of it).
Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and continue to bake for another 30 minutes or so until the vegetables are cooked. If you find there is still too much liquid, remove some with a spoon and return the whole thing to the oven so that the potatoes can get brown. You could if you wanted scatter other feta cheese and more thyme at this point if you wanted.
You can use the grill in the oven to get a darker, crisper top if you like.
Marinated Green Olives with Walnuts and Pomegranate Molasses
This is my absolute favourite dip/sauce/spread, with perhaps one exception on the right day. It is a Persian recipe that I learnt it from my friend’s mother. So therefore I am sure that it is slightly different to any originals, but this is as close as I can remember to the original that I tasted and loved.
I have seen it both fully blended together and also roughly chopped, so feel free to try it both ways. In this instance I decided to half blend, but it clearly is not for aesthetic reasons. A tricky dish to make look appealing, so please take my word.
3 large handfuls of walnuts, roughly chopped, reserve 1 of the 3 handfuls to stir through at the end
1-2 garlic clove, you can always add more.
1 can of green olives, that have been drained and washed. Use 1/2 at the beginning and 1/2 afterwards.
2 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp of lemon juice
3 tbsp of dried mint
4 tbsp of pomegranate molasses
I did this recipe in tbsp because I think it is easiest when you are making a sauce and also it is an indication of how flexible this is, it can and should be adjusted to your taste.
Mix everything together in a blender apart from the pomegranate molasses, the other half can of olives and handful of walnuts.
Blitz briefly but your not trying to make it smooth, then stir through the remaining ingredients. Adjust with more salt or lemon juice and finish with a remaining drizzle of pomegranate molasses.
Serve alongside, meat, rice or just as a dip. We also found it goes well with the root vegetables above.