It's the Future
Regular readers will know that one of our favourite Venetian bars is Macondo at Alberoni Beach, the nearest one can get to a cumbia vibe in the lagoon. As the Lido prepares for another summer season it’s got us dreaming about crunchy fried chapolites (grasshoppers with salt and lime) and exquisitely refreshing hibiscus water. Sadly, Mexican food, or even its horrible little sibling, Tex-Mex, hasn’t really arrived in Italy in any meaningful way, but there is one restaurant on the Lido whose Mexican co-owner offers delectable enchiladas and mole alongside the ubiquitous pizza-pasta.
Venetians have one good reason to be historically grateful to Mexico, for having succeeded where they failed in sending the loathed governor of the Veneto Archduke Maximilian of Austria to the firing squad, but further cultural links between the tiny lagoon city and the vast MesoAmerican empire at first seem tenuous. Mexico seems to be one of the very few places where the Venetians did not go poking their noses, so imagine our surprise at finding two gold Lions of San Marco perched cheerfully above the altar of the seventeenth century Carmen Alto Church in Oaxaca City. Even by the standards of Venetian travellers, ten thousand kilometres is a long way from home. The Carmelite order in Venice was responsible for the construction of one of the city’s most impressive scuole, with a staircase to rival the Palazzo Ducale and frescoes by Tiepolo, but though the Carmeiltes were international, their presence in Mexico was permitted and policed after colonisation by the Spanish state. Very few non-Spanish merchants or travellers were permitted to enter and there is hardly any evidence of an Italian presence in Mexico until the twentieth century.
The mystery, amongst many others, is solved in Elizabeth Horodowich’s brilliantly fascinating book The Venetian Discovery of America: Geographic Imagination and print Culture in the Age of Encounters, which analyses how Venetians mapped the Americas. To European eyes, Venice itself was such a strange and unique urban phenomenon that it became a natural reference point when attempting to describe the far vaster strangenesses of a new continent. Sailing around the Guajira Peninsula in 1499, the Spanish explorer Alonode Ojeda observed the ‘palafitte” houses of the Wayuu people, built on tree-trunk stilts in the water, and named the new territory Venezuela, the first and largest of many “little Venices”. In 1500 Amerigo Vespucci called Aruba “ a great town that had its houses founded o the sea like Venice”, whilst the light, swift boats of the Mexican Pacific, chamorros, seemed like gondolas to his eyes. Intriguingly, the Venetian Ambassador to Lisbon in 1501 reported seeing a golden sword displayed in the possession of a delegation of New World peoples. He knew Venetian craftsmanship when he saw it and wrote back to the Senate speculating on its journey.
Which got us speculating about food… there’s no doubt that Mexican cuisine is considerably more lively than Venetian in its present restrained state, and obviously it incorporates a huge range of ingredients and techniques still little known in Europe even today, but the Pacific coastal region of southern Mexico, of which Oaxaca is the capital does bear a few culinary comparisons. Corn, though yummy tortillas rather than dreary polenta, fish or seafood in aguachile, which is similar to the Venetian agrodolce, and clearly the use of chilli, cinnamon and other spices as flavour bases in savoury dishes which (as we’re always going on about), was once common to Venetian cookery. And tacos are essentially cichetti with personality. Naturally we’re now fantasising about using our boat as a floating Supper Club taqueria this summer, so this week’s recipe is by way of an experiment.
Lisa writes… As someone deeply suspicious of cocktails in general and a loather of Aperol Spritz in particular, I was surprised to find myself enjoying this simple, refreshing take on sangria, which is found all over south Mexico. Mix equal quantities of a list red wine (Beaujolais would work) and fizzy water, then add the juice of half a lime and the other half sliced to each glass. Salt and chilli powder on the rim optional, but the result is light, refreshing and not too drunk-making- perfect for a hot evening.
Whether your prawns come from the Rialto of the supermarket, this is fantastic on its own as a refreshing starter, or anytime piled into triumphant taco towers. The quantities aren’t very precise, but can be easily adjusted according to how many people you are serving.
200g fresh raw prawns
1 red onion
1tbsp white wine vinegar
Large bunch coriander
1 garlic clove
1 or more green chillis (depending on how much heat you want), tops sliced off and seeds removed
2 avocados, sliced
Slice the onion as finely as you can and sprinkle with the vinegar. Combine all the other ingredients except the prawns and the avocado in a blender and pulse to a vivid green liquid. Using a ceramic dish (metal will spoil the flavour), lay out the prawns and cover with the sauce, leaving to marinate for at least twenty minutes. Cover with the sliced onion and avocado.
To assemble as tacos, you will need two small corn tortillas per person, a small pot of sour cream, a pinch of smoked paprika and some sliced crunch (red or white cabbage, carrot, cucumber in any combination. Make the aguachile as above, then spread a thin layer of the cream with the paprika mixed in, then the prawns in their sauce and finally the vegetables and fold. eat with messy joy.
I enjoy your newsletter but paid for a subscription to your blog so I could contribute to your essay on Venice and Mexico. The English-born artist from the USA, Thomas Moran, was known not only for his landscapes of the western United State (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon etc) but also for his views of Venice, inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner. Among Moran's first paintings of Venice, following in the footsteps of artists as diverse as Canaletto, Whistler, and Rico, was one from 1886 exhibited with the remarkable sub-title "Reminiscences of Vera Cruz". Surely he's the only artist to recall Vera Cruz on a first visit to Venice. On a visit several years ago I failed to grasp the physical resemblance but on further research it seems the sky he saw in Venice reminded him of skies in Vera Cruz. My wife and I enjoy your essays, not least letting us know about zanzarotti. Thank you.