The eastern ghosts that haunt Venetian cuisine

Once upon a time, the food of Venice was considered the finest in Europe, “specialising in wild boar, peacock, venison, elaborate salads and architectural pastries”.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I visited Venice once, with university friends. I remember the mournful churches and busy bars, the smell of the canals and the narrow beds in our shabby pensione but, unusually for me, I have no recollection whatsoever of anything we ate that week. As Jan Morris writes in her marvellous book Venice, for all its well-documented charms, this is not “a gourmet’s city” – indeed, this maritime republic’s best-known contribution to world cuisine may well be the ship’s biscuit.

Yet, once upon a time, its food was considered the finest in Europe, “specialising in wild boar, peacock, venison, elaborate salads and architectural pastries”, all liberally and extravagantly seasoned with the exotic spices pouring into the city from the east.

In Europe, Venice had the monopoly on the spice trade until the 16th century, when the Portuguese finally opened up the sea route to the Indies, and this lucrative business brought the city both wealth and culinary fame. The contrast between the complex, aromatic recipes in the 14th-century Venetian manuscript Libro per Cuoco (or “Book for Cook”) and the grilled seafood and pan-Italian pastas and pizzas served in the modern city’s touristy trattorias could hardly be greater.

The food writer Katie Caldesi, who, with her Tuscan chef husband, Giancarlo, is the author of a new book on the cuisine of la Serenissima, Venice: Recipes Lost and Found, is fascinated by why the city’s cooks turned their backs on what she describes as the “bling” of spice.

The city’s native cuisine still remains, like the place itself, slightly divided from mainland Italy, both geographically and in the mindset of its inhabitants.

“Even today, for the Italians, Venice is a region apart,” Giancarlo tells me. “When the Roman empire fell, the people there felt no one would protect them, so they had to swim to the islands, to close themselves off. It’s a fantastic place, more than a dream.”

“It’s mind-blowing in terms of the way it opened my eyes up to the diversity of Italian food,” his wife agrees.

Though they rhapsodise over the simplicity and freshness of the city’s fish and seafood, it’s the faint ghosts of past glories that really intrigue them, lingering on in recipes such as the city’s sweet, peppery peverada sauce. “It’s the only place in Italy you find these spices, even in a very moderate way,” says Katie.

As part of the research, Giancarlo spent time in the kitchen of the Bistrot de Venise, a restaurant near St Mark’s Square with a similar interest in historical cuisine. Its magnificent spiced eel roasted in bay leaves makes it into the pages of the Caldesis’ book – along with a helpful note suggesting mackerel as an alternative.

Meanwhile, Katie pored over every ancient cookbook she could find, which inspired such recipes as the 14th-century chicken with ginger, saffron and dates that I try at the couple’s central London cookery school. The rich, sweetly spiced almond milk sauce reminds me powerfully of a very un-Italian korma; actually, the entire menu tastes more Mughal than Murano.

Giancarlo mournfully tells me that there’s only one spice shop left on the Calle degli Spezieri (“Street of the Spice Merchants”), near the Rialto Bridge: “And that only opened after the war.” He notes, though, that most of the kitchens he visited boasted a panoply of peppercorns – a last hangover, perhaps, of those earlier tastes.

For the most part, modern Venetian food tends towards the plain: however much prosecco you put away, you’re unlikely to detect rose water and candied fruits in the polpettine served at the city’s bustling bàcari or cicchetti bars.

But in Venice even the simplest things have secrets. The sauce on the ruby-hued beef carpaccio at Harry’s Bar? Spiked with our very own pungent mustard and tangy Worcestershire sauce. These days, the spice route runs both ways. 

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

Free trial CSS